Review: Pianist Yefim Bronfman Is Riveting at Symphony Center

Yefim Bronfman gave an exhilarating piano recital at Symphony Center on Sunday afternoon. In doing so, he demonstrated possession of everything a concert pianist needs to keep an audience riveted.

The program offered a rather unusual assortment of infrequently performed works by major Classical and Romantic composers. It also included a contemporary work that had been dedicated to Bronfman. This music strode across a wide variety of moods and feelings that he fully expressed.

Starting things was an early piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven, No 7 in D-major, Op. 10 no. 3. Bronfman applied a fluid touch to the rapid run of octaves that starts the work. His hands seemed to glide over the notes. Everything was careful, precise, and even.

The second movement Largo e mesto (Slow and sad) is Beethoven’s earliest foray into these depressed feelings. Bronfman’s treatment was very reflective and dreamy. It almost gave off a sense of optimism.

Next was Franz Schubert’s second of three piano sonatas in a-minor, D. 784. It is one of Schubert’s darkest works, but it also features his innate sense of harmony and key. The opening movement’s somber a-minor main theme is countered by an idyllic secondary theme in E-major. It is a fast Allegro guisto, but it has a very plodding feel.

In Bronfman’s hands, it was extremely satisfying. He extracted all of the mood swings, from ominous anticipation to lighter reflection. The finale is breezy with melodic passages interspersed with chords. As he reproduced melodic runs that start the movement, his fingers seemed to move like butterflies.

The second half was devoted to Romantic composer Robert Schumann and contemporary conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has frequently appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. First was Schumann’s Arabesque in C-major, Op. 18. Here Bronfman got to display his lyrical side. His ability to highlight a melody that was buried within lots of surrounding notes was very clear.

Turning to the contemporary, Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote in the program notes that Sisar is the last of a series of five preludes. He dedicated it to Bronfman, who continued to exhibit marvelous touch and feeling. It has lots of quick flourishes bounded with chords at the ends of the keyboard, and it’s a rhythmic mélange. It was a nice break from the more familiar Schumann. Next season, Salonen will be leading a series of concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in January and February 2025. For more information, click here and here.

The final work on the program allowed Bronfman to show off energy. Schumann’s Carnival Scenes from Vienna, Op. 26 features the most robust opening of the works on the program. The Allegro opens with a festive mood with bright chords, but soon diverts into short runs. The mood shifts are very quick, and Bronfman reproduced them well. He also extracted the variable feelings in the shorter movements that followed.

Bronfman reserved the real chestnuts for the encores, which he offered following a very rousing ovation. First was Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in g-minor, Op. 23, No. 5, my favorite miniature by this Russian composer. He gave it a marvelous treatment.

In contrast, he performed my favorite Chopin Nocturne, D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2. While he took it a bit faster than I prefer, it was an amazing way to end this amazing performance.

There are several upcoming concerts taking place at Symphony Center this weekend. This Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, Tugan Sokhiev conducts Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, Winter Dreams.  Also, pianist Yulianna Avdeeva performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. April 18, 20, and 21. For more information, click here.

On Friday, the Gateways Festival shifts from Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music to Symphony Center, where the Gateway Festival Orchestra and Take 6 perform an interesting program of black composers and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This festival, now in its 30th year, fills the stage with performers of African descent. Friday, April 19, 7:30. For more information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.