Yefim Bronfman cuts an imposing figure for a classical pianist
: a barrel-chested man with piston-like arms for pounding out dramatic chords and ripping through quicksilver runs of 16th notes on the great compositions of the past. But the naturalized American citizen defies such a stereotype; he is able to caress the quietest passages and willing to explore the newest repertoire.
In 2009, for example, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for his recording of a new piano concerto composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Last year he was nominated again for a world premiere, this time for a piano concerto that the New York Philharmonic co-commissioned from Magnus Lindberg. Since he became famous enough to choose his own repertory, Bronfman has ranged widely across both old and new music.
"There's no reason really," he says over the phone from his Manhattan apartment. "It's just my curiosity for both new things and old things. It's like hunger. When you're thirsty, you drink. You know what you need; if you don't, you're in trouble."
This season he's focusing on the Beethoven piano concertos. He's doing the complete cycle of five concertos in three cities and individual concertos in certain cities. In Baltimore this week he will perform the fifth piano concerto, the "Emperor," with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Bronfman insists he is more interested in what the piece tells us about the 21st century than in what it tells us about the 19th.
"The more I play Beethoven," the pianist declares, "the more I realize how modern he is, how much there is that I haven't seen before. He is one of the few composers whose music reflects his own life and the world around him. In times of war, his music is stormy; in happier times, it's peaceful. One can relate that to today's life. We have so many conflicts in the world and so many beautiful moments with nature. He was curious about what was beyond what we already know, that mystery beyond our present limits of knowledge. So he came up with a language to evoke that, the future that is our present."
Bronfman is especially fascinated by Beethoven's final piano concerto, for it demonstrates just how far the composer traveled over the course of his career, from the classical certainties of the first to the heroic invention of the fifth. "The evolution from the early concertos to the last one is astounding," he says. "He was born into Mozart's and Bach's time, but he grew out of it and made Schumann and Brahms possible. No composer who came after him could really escape him. That's still the case today."
Bronfman recorded all five of the concertos with David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; the three CDs were released by Arte Nova Classics in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The pianist's sheer physical power is obvious in the martial cadences and clashes within the first and third movements. Far from romanticizing war, however, Beethoven often followed these military passages with quiet reflections on beauty destroyed and loss mourned, and devoted the entire middle movement to a meditation of heartbreaking melancholy. Bronfman's greatness comes not from the gusto of the flag-waving passages, nor from the tenderness of the head-bowing sections, but from his rare ability to contrast the two so dramatically.
"This was the Napoleonic era," Bronfman points out, "when Napoleon invaded Vienna. While Beethoven was composing the concerto, he could go outside and see the ruins of the battle. But his music reflected not just the events of the day but, more importantly, the emotional response to those events. The adagio may be one of the most beautiful movements of all time."
Bronfman has had a long history with Zinman. The pianist came to the U.S. when he was 15 years old, in 1973, and, shortly after, auditioned for Zinman when the latter headed up the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was encouraging and eventually invited the 20-year-old pianist to solo with that orchestra in 1977. When Zinman became music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1985, he had Bronfman solo with the ensemble as often as possible.
"David's a wonderful musician," the pianist says; "I find his Beethoven refreshing, crisp, and wonderfully executed. He creates a perfect balance in the sound; his knowledge of the baroque allows him to incorporate that style into Beethoven. His idea of playing Beethoven is to take the metronome markings seriously and to play faster than other people. I personally love it when it's a little faster. It's alive, you get the sense that the music is being created as it's being performed."
Even before working with Zinman, Bronfman had a connection to Maryland, for he commuted from New York to Baltimore as a young man to take lessons here from Leon Fleisher. Bronfman still believes that Fleisher's recordings of the repertoire are the best we have, if only because he played with such conviction that one believed his approach was the only approach-at least for as long as the record was playing. Fleisher also had the knack, Bronfman adds, for making the music so personal that it seemed he was playing only for you.
Even after Zinman left Baltimore, Bronfman continued to visit the city to play with the conductors Yuri Temirkanov and Marin Alsop. He had played with Alsop in Denver before she took the Baltimore job and was impressed how she took the Colorado orchestra, which was in bad shape, and made it sound good.
Alsop also has the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sounding very good these days. Last Thursday she led the ensemble through Rachmaninoff's
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major "Titan." The first piece demonstrated how well the orchestra can work with a guest pianist (in this case, 25-year-old South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo), while the second piece demonstrated how well the ensemble can negotiate the sudden shifts and dramatic juxtapositions of a very Beethoven-like composer such as Mahler. Both of which bode well for the orchestra's collaboration with Bronfman this week.
As much as Bronfman likes to explore the great composers of the past, there's something special about working with a living composer, as he has with Salonen and Lindberg. For one thing, you can ask them questions and get answers, as you never can with Beethoven. For another, there's a sense that the composer is writing for your personality on the instrument.
"There are many examples in classical music of a special relationship between a composer and soloist. Most pieces are written with a soloist or an ensemble in mind, because you cannot write music for air; you write the music for real people. When you know what the soloist or the orchestra is capable of, you can write for those capabilities. You can be inspired by those capabilities and you can challenge those capabilities. That's why I work with living composers."