Saturday June 18th, 2016 - Yefim Bronfman (above) concluding a Prokofiev piano sonata cycle at Zankel Hall this evening, playing the 5th and 9th sonatas. Violinist Guy Braunstein joined Mr. Bronfman for the two Prokofiev violin sonatas.
After passing some days in a state of reclusive depression over the Orlando shootings, I ventured out tonight even though I was not really in the mood for it. But Bronfman is one of my most-admired musicians, and Prokofiev among my favorite composers, so I felt a strong desire to be there. Prokofiev's music is not consoling, as a rule, though there are passages that reach to the soul, especially in the Andante of the second violin sonata, where Mr. Braunstein was at his finest this evening.
Watching Yefim Bronfman perform is a particularly pleasing experience for me. He walks out, bows genially, sits down, and he and the keyboard become one. There are no frills, and no theatricality in his playing: it's all about the music and his communing with it. Very brief pauses between movements keep the impetus of the music - and our delight in it - in true focus.
Bronfman's rendering of the 5th piano sonata was deeply satisfying, the audience engrossed as he immersed himself in the music's ever-shifting melodic and rhythmic elements. This was exactly the 'great escape' from world-weariness I so desperately needed tonight. From its songful start, the opening Allegro tranquillo was a complete delight: the touches of dissonance adding spice, with wit, irony, and drama all having their say. A delicate march heralds the Andantino, with fetching trills, before things get darker and more emphatic, leading to a low-rumbling of a finish. By turns jaunty, lyrical, and pungent, the concluding Poco allegretto was polished off with Bronfman's inimitable clarity and grace, the music seeming to vanish into a dream at the end.
Above: Guy Braunstein
Mr. Braunstein then joined the pianist for the violin sonata #1. Here the piano's somber opening of the Andante assai gives way to a rather hesitant start for the violin, with some buzzing trills before things expand to a rather labored passage. Then the piano's misterioso murmurs underpin the violin's sliding scales. The emphatic start of the Allegro brusco drew some energetic foot stamping from Mr. Braunstein as the turbulence envelops us; and then suddenly his violin sings a lusty song. After re-grouping and re-energizing, the music turns more pensive - but only briefly: a riotous dance ensues, subsiding into lyricism before another dramatic surge.
The Andante features a shimmering piano motif as the violin sings in the alto range; both instruments move to the higher spheres in a unison passage, which eventually goes very high indeed. Back to the alto colourings for more of the violin's forlorn phrases. High and lilting, the piano signals the movement's soft ending. A sprightly jig sets off the finale, calming eventually and leading to a delicate pizzicati paragraph. Some lively scrambling makes us think the end is nigh, but instead the violin's mute goes on and rolling scales summon an impression of “the wind in a graveyard”; the sonata ends sadly.
The performance drew an enthusiastic response from the sold-out house; a bit of iffy intonation from the violin in places mattered little in the end, since Braunstein's mixture of poetry and vigor made the music so savorable.
Following the interval, Mr. Bronfman returned for the 9th piano sonata. The first movement starts gently, and continues amiably, though there's an underlying restlessness. More expansive passages, and some low, rumbling scales lead to an eventual quiet finish. The second movement is scherzo-like, with rippling scales and a jogging rhythm; a pensive passage, more jogging, and another soft ending.
The Andante tranquillo brought forth more Bronfman magic: a wistful melody, followed by a glittering brilliance that subsides to mystery and then to sadness. From deep rumblings, the music rises to a high melancholy. After a big start, the Allegro finale turns ironic; "shining" music gleams forth, surrendering to mirth, percolating on high, whispering a farewell. Here Bronfman's virtuosity and subtle colorations were at their most alluring.
To end the evening, Prokofiev's second violin sonata, which had started life as a flute sonata, and which David Oistrakh had prevailed on the composer to re-cast for violin in 1943. This familiar work was played with a wonderful melding of the two instruments, the players so alert to one another and marking the beauty of the Andante with glowing sound. Traces of my earlier concerns about pitch in the violin line cropped up again, but my pianist-companion seemed to feel that the issue was minor, and so I let the energy and optimism of the Allegro con brio the finale carry me along...together with the rest of the crowd, who swept to their feet at the finish to salute the generous playing and the final expression of joie de vivre from the two players.