Music in a time of mourning
February 18, 2004
The magic is in his hands.
Pianist Yefim Bronfman, the big Russian bear, is known for his aggressive play, for hitting the keys as hard as any performer in the world.
Yet while most pianists’ hands show the toil of their profession ” cracked skin, stubby fingers, split nails ” Bronfman’s hands have somehow remained smooth and unscathed.
Bronfman glides through passages of dizzying intensity with a grace that borders on ease; anyone who has seen him in concert has seen the conjurer’s hands at work. Yet for all of Bronfman’s technical bravado, for all the virtuoso’s power and revered sonority, it is the sensitivity of his playing during delicate passages that makes him arguably the greatest pianist of his generation.
The full spectrum of Bronfman’s talent will be on display in Aspen this week. Bronfman, a longtime Aspen performer, will perform twice, first tonight at the memorial for Robert Harth, the longtime president of the Aspen Music Festival and School who died unexpectedly last month. Bronfman will take the stage again tomorrow as part of the festival’s Winter Music Artist Recital Series, performing an enticing program of Beeth-oven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff.
Bronfman said he returns to Aspen with a heavy heart. He and Harth were colleagues and friends for many years. They met while Harth was working with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The relationship continued in Aspen and, most recently, in New York. A few weeks before Harth’s death, the two attended a concert together at Carnegie Hall.
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“Our careers have always been connected,” Bronfman said from his home in New York yesterday. “We are the same age and we started at the same time, working together throughout the years in Los Angeles, Aspen and New York. I don’t know a single person who didn’t have respect for him, both personally and professionally.”
Bronfman hopes this evening’s memorial will offer Aspen’s music community the chance to both grieve and celebrate. Bronfman will play the largo movement from Beethoven’s seventh sonata, a somber, expressive section Bronfman said is appropriate for such a sad occasion.
“It feels so right to have the memorial at Harris Hall,” he said. “The hall was his achievement, his legacy. Without Robert, Harris Hall would not have happened.”
Bronfman, who was born in Tashkent in the Soviet Union, is known by many as one of the last proponents of the Russian school of piano playing. Yet he denies the label. He argues that great pianists must be versatile, adjusting their style to each composer.
For Thursday’s concert, Bronfman has chosen a program that exemplifies this commitment to adaptability. The concert will be divided along German-Russian lines, with the first half dedicated to Beethoven sonatas and the second half offering works of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.
“This program is a selection of my favorites,” Bronfman said. “Of course I have a high regard for Russian music. But pianists must have the ability to play German music much differently than Russian music. It should almost sound to the audience like they are listening to different pianists.”
The highlight of the program for many will be Beethoven’s last sonata, Opus 111. The piece, unusually divided into two movements, has fascinated music lovers since its composition, famously prompting Thomas Mann to devote part of his novel “Doctor Faustus” to an exposition of its form.
The first movement is stormy and unsettled, the tormented ranting of a lonely musician who by the time of composition was living in almost total silence and solitude. The second movement, however, offers something altogether different. It begins with a set of variations on a deceptively simple theme. By the end of the piece, the variations have led to a huge series of trills that are both tantalizingly ethereal and troublingly penetrating. It is an incredible section of music, a devastatingly moving inversion of a technical device usually saved for shallow, decorative passages.
Bronfman calls the final passages of the sonata redemptive, a suggestion of refuge after preceding storms. It’s an important ending to an important piece, and for Aspen’s bereaved musical community, which is struggling to battle through its own emotional maelstrom, such redemption is greatly needed.
Robert Harth’s memorial service is scheduled for tonight at Harris Hall. Bronfman will perform tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. at Harris Hall.
[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]