An ad campaign some years back cleverly proclaimed “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levi’s Jewish Rye Bread.” You certainly don’t have to be Russian to play the music of Sergei Prokofiev, but after hearing Yefim Bronfman’s commanding, exuberant performance of Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata Friday (Dec. 14) at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium, I could be persuaded that being Russian gives an inside track to interpreting this music.
When the 54-year-old Bronfman was born in Tashkent, it was part of the Soveit Union, and the young pianist grew up in the same repressive Soviet culture in which Prokofiev wrote his Eighth Piano Sonata (completed and premiered in 1944). A restless yet impassioned work, this sonata tries to keep its harmonic and structural modernisms hidden in the closet while dangling ample dulcet melodies to dupe Stalin’s musical censors.
Bronfman took complete control of the sprawling opening movement’s mood swings—it may be marked andante dolce, but the pace varies greatly, and only the opening theme is sweet. Deftly emphasizing melodic riffs in the whirl of unsettling figurations and underlining the logical structures in the fury of declamatory outbursts, Bronfman helped us discern the composer’s compromises between his own creative urges and the doctrinal constraints of Socialist Realism.
I appreaciated Bronfman’s graceful phrasing and clean voicing in the dreamy middle movement, etiquette he was required to leave behind in the final movement’s acerbic maelstrom. A tour de force that called upon every bit of the performer’s technical vocabulary, he painted a vivid picture of a wild party of drunk Soviet workers at their leisure, all the while sneering along with the composer on the sidelines, “If it were only so.”
Bronfman chose Johannes Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata, Op. 5, as his recital’s centerpiece, and he imbued it with gentleauthority and breadth, drawing deep rich sonorities from the La Jolla Music Society’s sometimes abrasive sounding Steinway. If he did not send us away with new insights about the piece, he took care to craft sympathetically the contrasting character of each of the sonata’s five movements.
I found his Haydn C Major Sonata, Hob XVI:50, to be old school: overly deliberate and slightly condescending, as if he were saying, “We would all be having much more fun if this were a Mozart sonata.” When, for example, Anne-Marie McDermott plays Haydn, it sizzles with wit and a playful edge.
Bronfman’s encores were a quiet single-movement Scarlatti sonata and Franz Liszt’s arrangement of a Paganini Caprice for solo violin.
Tickets: 858.459.3728; www.ljms.org
Next Frieman Family Piano Series Program: Kirill Gerstein on Friday, April 298, 2013