Yefim Bronfman is a bad-ass.
Ok, perhaps this is old news, but even if that’s the case, it’s worth repeating.
So many reasons why this is true, not least of which because he happened to break his finger in the midst of playing the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 last year — and still managed to play through the pain and finish the concert (read Rick Schultz’s very nice interview with him HERE where he discusses his broken finger and subsequent recovery).
Broken finger or not, Mr. Bronfman (AKA “Fima”) never ceases to amaze with his combination of refined taste, superior musicality, impeccable technique, and ferocious power that he wields like an AC-130 gunship — staying in the background until called for, at which time thunder is unleashed and woe be to those who dare get in the way.
To use another analogy, he treats piano works like Walter Payton treated defenders: as appropriate, he can speed around them, he can pound right through them, or he can bob and weave his way through a thicket of obstructions — always making the right choice for the moment, and always with grace and class and dignity.
All of that is true on any given night, but last Tuesday, he managed to pull off something rather remarkable: he managed to get me to truly enjoy a major work by Brahms.
As the frequent reader already knows, I tend to appreciate big Brahms works the way I appreciate my soccer — there may be a whole world of people who love it, but about once every four years tends to be enough for me. I like the concertos better than the symphonies, but with the lone exception of the Violin Concerto, none of his works cause me to off-handedly decide, “You know, just for kicks, let’s listen to some Brahms today.” When I do play Brahms, it’s because I feel I should, because I keep thinking, “Well, maybe now that I’m [insert age here], I’ll finally be drawn to it.” It’s never worked.
Tuesday night was a case of me going to see Fima Bronfman play the piano, and the fact that he was playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto was tolerable, at least going into it. When it was done, I genuinely enjoyed it in every way, orders of magnitude more than any previous performance or recording I’d heard. I never had heard it played with that kind of range, variation of color, and breadth of mood. In short, I’d never heard Fima play it.
Mr. Bronfman played the bulk of the concert at a comfortable mezzo-forte, only pressing the extremes when he really wanted to make a big point. The first movement was tender and compact, occasionally expanding or retreating when the moment called for it. The second movement was more assertive without being tense. Tao Ni, the LA Phil’s new Associate Principal Cellist, played the third movement obligato beautifully, and he combined with Mr. Bronfman to stretch the line without ever allowing it to become schmaltzy. The finale was playful, even carefree.
The LA Phil provided the backbone which supported the soloist’s efforts, with Resident Conductor Lionel Bringuier adding nice little touches without ever getting in the way. It all felt like chamber music writ large, with lots of eye contact between Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Bringuier and the orchestra.
After intermission, Mr. Bringuier led a nicely paced account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He favored livelier tempos in general, while still giving the more introspective sections room to breathe. The central Nimrod section unfolded beautifully, the bulldog of the G.R.S. splashed and galoomphed with great fervor, and the finale was noble without becoming bombastic. It was the latest in a long line of compelling interpretations by Mr. Bringuier.
Random other thoughts:
- There was applause a-plenty. People clapped after each of the individual movements of the Brahms concerto, and Mr. Bronfman briefly nodded to acknowledge them all except for when the third movement flowed directly into the fourth. There was also a preponderance of clapping immediately after the Nimrod in the middle of the Elgar. We all survived, and there were no riots.
- The Hollywood Bowl’s sound system was pretty decent in relation to the range of its capabilities. It started around Pandora sound quality, but by the end of the night, managed to work its way somewhere in between satellite radio and FM quality.
- NOTE: Most of this review was written on August 2nd and 3rd; however, due to the sad events of the weekend chronicled elsewhere on this blog, was not completed and edited until the 7th. I’ve decided to back-date the review to the 3rd to better reflect my state of mind when the review was written.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 31, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
Lionel Bringuier, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Elgar: Engima Variations