Performing in the Distinguished Artist Series of the Seattle Symphony on Monday night, pianist Yefim Bronfman didn’t wait for the applause that greeted him to finish. He walked out, did a quick bow, sat down and — unlike many who make sure the seat is exactly right, flip their coattails behind them, take out a handkerchief and sit for a moment — started playing almost immediately.
His Haydn was a marvel, with a touch that draws the listener in immediately. To play feather-light runs as clear as a bell the way he does takes enormous control and strength, in order to achieve that meticulousness, speed and exquisite lightness at the same time. He made that grand piano sound like a fortepiano, which is what Haydn would have been playing in 1794 when he was writing this Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI/50.
Unfortunately the second soft and slow movement was marred by an excessive amount of intrusive coughing in the audience.
He followed the Haydn with Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, the last piano sonata Brahms wrote, at the age of 20.
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A striking point of Bronfman’s performance was the change in how he performed these two works. Sixty years elapsed between their composition, but in pianistic and stylistic terms, light years occurred, and Bronfman made this clear. Pianos were still developing then, still wooden inside, but bigger, stronger and with more resonance and a longer delay in the decay of a note. Pedals were just beginning with Haydn, but very much present by Brahms’ time.
However, while this Sonata already has hallmarks of Brahms’ maturity, it isn’t one of his great works. It has less structure and melodic form, is even a little bombastic, though Brahms’ predilection for an almost orchestral sound created on the piano is already there.
Bronfman played it with sweep and style, his fingers amazing in his ability to play runs at great speed with artistic nuance and shading.
On the other hand, the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 in B Flat major has content, shape and feeling in spades. Bronfman brought out all these, making clear the fatigue of war and the wish sometimes to stop the grief and anger and feel a little serenity. The sonata abounds in these sudden changes, and Bronfman’s furious playing at one moment and his gentleness at the next showed them to their utmost.
The audience swept to its feet to applaud, and Bronfman came back for a couple of encores: Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 8 and Liszt’s Paganini Etude in E-flat major. Bronfman’s program and encore choices were not perhaps the best. After the spareness and elegance of the Haydn, everything else, including the encores, showed off his ability to play torrents of notes very fast. While there were slower sections, the overall impression was of deluge. I’d have liked more of a balanced approach.