Yefim Bronfman: the gentle giant of classical piano

In an interview ahead of his Abu Dhabi Festival appearance on Saturday, the virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman talks about Brahms and explains why he would prefer to be heard but not seen during his concerts.

You know you've become a legend when you appear in a novel in your own lifetime. Here is the American literary giant Philip Roth writing about the pianist Yefim Bronfman in The Human Stain.

“A force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt, [Bronfman is] somebody who has strolled into the music shed out of a circus where he is the strongman, and who takes on the piano as a ridiculous challenge to the Gargantuan strength he revels in. Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it… When he’s finished, I thought, they’ll have to throw the thing out.”

Arguably America’s greatest pianist working today, Bronfman – who performs at the Emirates Palace Auditorium on Saturday – certainly cuts an imposing figure. Tall and bearish, he plays with a brooding sensitivity and tenderness that have turned him into a classical music icon, often known to his fans simply by his Russian pet name, Fima. In person, however, he couldn’t be further from the big-top bruiser Roth describes.

Deeply reluctant to let his personality or image obscure the music he plays, Bronfman has long fantasised about playing incognito, as he explains when we chat during a break from rehearsals this week.

“It has long been a dream of mine to have music played behind a curtain, so that people forget the performer and concentrate on the music – for me, the music comes first,” he says. “Myself, I like to turn the radio on halfway into a piece, and listen without knowing who the performer is. It’s the best, most objective way to listen – and I’m often embarrassingly mistaken when I try to guess who is playing.”

This self-deprecation seems to be typical of Bronfman’s attitude. He has said he likes chamber music because “you can talk and tell jokes instead of rehearsing”, his attitude to Roth’s depiction of him is a mixture of awe and bafflement, while when I talk about people coming to see him play, he corrects me: “They shouldn’t come to see me, they should come to hear Brahms.”

While entirely healthy, this self-effacement could be a symptom of a wayward, complicated early life, where sticking out was no good thing. Born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in 1958 when the country was part of the Soviet Union, he is the son of professional musicians who suffered persecution from both the Nazis and the Communists. In some ways, 1960s Tashkent was a very healthy place for a budding musician, and Bronf­man appreciatively remembers its musical life.

“Tashkent was a hub for evacuees from the excellent Leningrad Conservatory, many of whom stayed on after the war, so it had a very good music school and a lot of talent around.”

Even in this apparently fertile setting, Bronfman’s family met with ostracism and harassment when they applied to emigrate, with Bronfman denounced as a traitor in front of his whole music school when he went to say goodbye to his class

After leaving the Soviet ­Union in 1975, Bronfman and his phenomenal musical talent soon drew the attention of such greats on the US scene as the violinist Isaac Stern and the composer Leonard Bernstein, earning him scholarships and kudos as a soloist while still a teenager, a rapid change of circumstance that must have been exciting and disorienting in equal measure.

With this background, his reticence is understandable. But while he is reluctant to place himself too much in the frame, Bronfman is articulate, passionate and unwaveringly confident about the value of the music he performs.

“I really believe that listening to great music makes you a better person. If you want to develop your senses and taste, music is maybe – for me at least – the most important culture that there is. Loving it often comes after appreciating other, more accessible, visual forms of art, but it is important to develop that curiosity, that ability to listen.”

That curiosity is typical of his own approach. Restrictively pigeonholed for promotional reasons for years by his record company as a specialist in Russian music, Bronfman has lately emerged as an important performer of new music, thanks to his forward-thinking enthusiasm for his profession.

Later next month at New York's Carnegie Hall, he is performing the 37-year-old German composer Jörg Widmann's XI Humoresken, a piece loosely modelled on Schumann and specially commissioned for Bronfman, while last year he made the first recording of the Piano Concerto by the Finnish composer, conductor and long-time Bronfman collaborator Esa Pekka Salonen.

For his first Abu Dhabi concert this weekend, however, the pianist is returning to one of the great challenges of the 19th-century repertoire, Brahms's Piano Concerto No 2, accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra directed by the conductor Nicola Luisotti.

While he calls it “probably the most difficult concerto ever written”, Bronfman still talks about the piece with dreamy enthusiasm: “When I think of Beethoven’s music, I think of architecture, of structure and this great sense of struggle. With Brahms on the other hand – and the concerto in particular – I think of natural landscapes, mountains and green valleys and beautiful vistas, of this incredible grandeur. There may not be a story to the piece necessarily, but there’s this sense of poetic narrative running through it.”

While appreciative of the awesome Romantic image-painting of Brahms’s piece, he also advances the claims of the composer – who is often seen as Beethoven’s great follower – to be recognised as a bold innovator in his own right.

"Of course with Brahms, you never get away from Beethoven – even in the Second Concerto there's the influence of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, it recalls it with this incredible grandeur it has," he says. "But while it's only just out of the classical period and still has a very classic structure, Brahms is out there experimenting. He's already stretching the concerto format from three into four movements, which was a novelty at the time, and making the penultimate movement the slow one, instead of the usual second, so lots is happening musically. Brahms was at the peak of his career as a pianist when he wrote it, and I suspect he wrote it for himself – he was this larger-than-life character, and that comes out in the music."

This sprawling, many-voiced work – heroic, playful and melancholic by turns – poses huge challenges to both the pianist and the orchestra’s players, who frequently take over centre stage from the soloist’s bravura performance for short passages. What does Bronfman find especially demanding about performing such a large piece?

"Well, while it's possibly the most difficult concerto ever written, it mustn't sound that way. The audience should feel that it's being handled with relative ease. It has to sound natural and beautiful. There's also a danger that the first and second movements risk sounding similar. They often do when they are performed, when they shouldn't: the first is this majestic 20-minute tour de force, while the second is much more passionate."

Does the piece still make him nervous, then?

“I’m working on it” he smiles “I think if I know what I’m doing, there’s no need to get too nervous. It destroys the point if you try to compete with a computer.”

For more information, visit the Abu Dhabi Festival website.

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