REVIEW: Sleek playing from Bronfman, brass and string quartet

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

Yefim Bronfman coaxed an ear-caressing range of tone from the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the Benedict Music Tent Tuesday evening. He applied breathtakingly precise technique to find expressive details in works by Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and the iconoclastic Soviet-era composer Galina Ustvolskaya. Miraculously, it all came through indelibly in the spacious expanses of the tent, a space hardly ideal for solo piano music.

Bronfman always is all business, so it’s not surprising that he conquered both the music and the space. He does not gaze into the ether before he begins a piece. Once he settles onto the piano bench, the music launches without hesitation, whether it’s the lilting dance of Beethoven’s Sonata no.11, the sprinkling of fairy dust in the opening flourish of Chopin’s B minor Piano Sonata, or the hushed chords that started the most arresting piece of the recital—Ustvolskaya’s disarmingly subtle fourth Piano Sonata.

In a brief 10 minutes, Ustvolskaya creates a sound world of gauzy harmonies interrupted occasionally by thrusts of jagged melodic lines or punchy chords. Her sound world can draw a listener in with its surprises, changing tone unexpectedly or conjuring a pianistic flourish in what had been a simple musical meadow. It benefited from Bronfman’s subtleties, his ability to command so many timbres and dynamics with assurance. This remains a piece worth championing, and he has done so.

The Beethoven sonata, not among the composer’s most often-played, came to life vividly. Bronfman’s ability to execute every phrase with startling clarity found balances and gestures that only the most accomplished can. His work in the outer movements relished Beethoven’s inclination for surprise twists while keeping it all neatly tailored. Both the slow movement and the third-movement Menuetto, which turns unexpectedly dark in the trio, sang with barely concealed emotion.

The Chopin, which can feel monumental in some pianists’ hands, had a breeziness that belied its technical challenges, flowing with an inevitability one seldom hears—especially in the brief, blazingly fast Scherzo.

Chopin’s shadow cast itself over the evening. The long, fluid, delectably embellished Largo in Beethoven sonata is often cited as a model for Chopin’s piano writing in the following decades. Aside from that tie, there was Bronfman’s encore. In Schumann’s “Arabeske” he managed the magical feat of making the piano, a percussive instrument, sound as if it was flowing like liquid, the pulse of the insistent runs evoking an image of waves. A casual listener could easily have mistaken it for a Chopin finger-buster.

For music made for a big space like the music tent, you can’t go wrong with brass music, which made the American Brass Quintet the perfect focus for Wednesday’s recital. Bass trombone John D. Rojak half-joked that they had been “freed from the confines of Harris Hall,” the 500-seat auditorium across the way from the tent that’s ideal for most chamber music. Three of the brass quintet groups they had been mentoring for the past month joined them to unfurl Giovanni Gabrieli’s intricate polyphony gloriously in the space with three 10-part pieces to conclude an ear-soothing concert.

The quintet opened with a lovely suite of Renaissance madrigals by Wilbye, Gesualdo and Monteverdi, edited by second trumpet Louis Hanzlik, the flugelhorns he and his trumpet partner Kevin Cobb played creating a round sound.

Two works that the quintet had commissioned celebrated a return to live performance. The first, a fantasia by Evan Williams on the “Lux Aeterna” Gregorian chant, struck a hymn-like tone. The other excerpted two movements steeped in jazz ballad harmonies from “Quarantine Quartet,” a world premiere by Don York (who died of a stroke before completing it). A work of richness and beauty, it quotes Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” at the end—representing hope after the grief brought by the pandemic.

When rain pounded the tent during the first few minutes of the Escher Quartet’s recital Thursday evening, some of us were thinking “uh oh.” But the shower passed, and Bartók’s thorny third String Quartet emerged with the ensemble’s signature thoughtful execution and attention to detail. They struck a nice contrast between the arcing lines of the opening movement and juicy rhythms of the second, and brought it home to a lively finish. Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major op.135 got a light and airy reading to conclude the concert, all the pieces in place, and sleekly played.

In between came a quartet by a composer who is finally getting the attention she deserves—Florence Price. Her String Quartet in A minor, written in 1935, weaves together European formality with themes and musical gestures that come from her Black American culture. It’s not easy for classically trained musicians to get the loose-limbed nuances of a dance movement that’s built on the West African roots of the juba, but the ensemble captured a nice sense of laughter tinged by sadness.

The slow second movement was especially touching, the simple melodies and harmonies shaded lovingly, and the finale, with its revving rhythms, gained momentum to an exciting finish.


Pianist Daniil Trifonov takes on Skryabin’s Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor Sunday, a piece the 24-year-old composer wrote to show off his own virtuosity. Vasily Petrenko conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and follows the concerto with much more familiar Russian music—Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite, finally released from its pre-Christmas confines. Trifonov returns Tuesday for a recital that includes Brahms’ expansive Piano Sonata No. 3.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Saturdays and Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.


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