Yefim Bronfman, pianistic force, in two acts

November 26, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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J-Wire took its music reviewer Fraser Beath McEwing to watch one of the world’s top pianists Yefim Bronfman rehearse Brahms powerful Piano Concerto No1 with the Sydney Symphony orchestra followed by a private interview with the maestro…read his report.

Scene One.


Yefim Bronfman   Photographed by Henry Benjamin

Yefim Bronfman      Photographed by Henry Benjamin

I’ve been invited to a rehearsal at the Opera House. I feel pretty special; one of only three people in a deluge of empty red seats. On stage is our beloved Sydney Symphony Orchestra, not in elegant eveningwear, but in jeans, t-shirts and all things comfortable. The conductor, t-shirted Donald Runnicles, a Scot, could be Billy Connolly’s twin brother. He raises his baton.

Seated at the Opera House’s new Steinway concert grand is one of the world’s finest pianists, Yefim Bronfman. He’s casual too, in a big brown cardigan over a blue striped polo shirt. At his feet are a couple of cardboard coffee containers and a brightly coloured canvas bag. He nods to Runnicles and instantly the tympani becomes the starter’s gun for the strings to stream into the somber opening of Brahms first Piano Concerto.

Conductor Donal Runnicles    Pic: Henry Benjamin

Conductor Donal Runnicles Pic: Henry Benjamin

The transformation is remarkable. There is nothing now but the music.

Bronfman waits for the lengthy opening to finish and then begins to play. His massive torso is positioned high over the keyboard, wrists above the fingers the way our piano teacher taught us but we never mastered. His technique is peerless, opening the doorway to an effortless commune between piano, orchestra and Johannes Brahms.

This is the final rehearsal before tomorrow afternoon’s performance, the first of four presenting the Brahms and Mahler’s first symphony.

After the demanding first movement, Bronfman leaves his stool for a brief discussion with Runnicles. The richly wistful slow movement begins, and Bronfman shows his tenderness, made all the more meaningful by the stormy cavalry charges he handed out in the first movement.

There is no break between the second and third movements. Bronfman is soon getting stuck into the driving rhythms and the urgent calls from either end of the keyboard. There is every reason for him to be flinging his arms, snapping his neck and contorting his body, but no. He sits there like a giant brick dressed in a brown cardigan…only his hands are moving. Occasionally he gazes into the viola department, lost in the moment of some other realm, or looks up at Runnicles who is confidently driving the heavy machinery.

If this is a rehearsal can the performance be any better? I can’t imagine so.

Scene Two


Katherine, the SSO people shepherdess, has taken my editor Henry and me down into the labyrinth of the Opera House to a room where soloists come to prepare themselves for the walk to the concert hall stage. Many would be terrified, but all would be apprehensive. This comfortable room is also a kind of home base. It provides a close-to-the-water view of the famous bridge. Next to the horizontal windows is a boudoir-size grand piano – but still a Steinway. The room also has a couple of couches for interviews like the one we have been granted with Bronfman. I am the one who is apprehensive. How could somebody that has just torn Brahms apart be easy to talk to? Surely he’d be scary, maybe scornful.

Bronfman walks in, extending one of his powerful hands and I am reminded of Philip Roth’s description of him in the novel The Human Stain: ‘Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it.’

He sits opposite us, his canvas bag beside him. And here is the second transformation. He begins to chat like a mate. No superiority, no look of ‘how soon can I get clear of these guys’. If anything, he’s humble.

This is his sixth visit to Australia – beginning in 1978 with the Israel Philharmonic when he was 20, meaning he is more than a seasoned performer, but he denies he was a child prodigy.

“I just went along learning piano, then had a few auditions with conductors in Israel and they engaged me. That’s how it happened. Things turned around for me for some reason. My parents didn’t push me. I don’t agree with parents who do.”

He was born in Tashkent, moved to Israel when he was 14 and three years later settled in the United States – where he became a citizen in 1989. But Israel remains dear to him. He remembers the rich musical life and the great performers that visited. He still owns an apartment there.

Yefim Bronfman    Pic: Henry Benjamin

Yefim Bronfman Pic: Henry Benjamin

He likes Australian audiences, finding them appreciative, but the feeling he gets from each one is different. And he doesn’t mind applause between movements.

“In Mozart’s time, audiences could begin to applaud the soloist even before a movement was finished,” he says. “Some movements finish with what seems to call for applause, so it’s okay.”

Audiences he played for recently in China are a bit more testing. “During a performance they can change seats, talk and take pictures. Very informal, but you accept it,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes it can be too formal, too uptight. You have to have some middle ground. Music should be enjoyed.”

We ask him about the enormous growth in the number of Asian pianists, thinking that they would make the competition just that much tougher.

“Thank God for the rise of Asian pianists,” he replies. “They rescue piano playing. They are the new breath of classical music and we need it. Sure, the field is overcrowded but it always was. Very few instrumentalists can survive on solo appearances. But for the good ones, there is always room.”

With so much free classical recorded music available, is Bronfman hostile about the diminishing rewards to recording artists?

“Technology has pushed the recording business out. The record labels now hardly produce anything new. But we should be very grateful to them for making recordings in the past of some of the greats like Glen Gould, Heifetz and Horowitz.”

And what does ‘Mr Fortissimo’ (Roth again) do between concerts?

“I travel but I am not a tourist,” he says. “I keep practicing. And it not just about the notes. There are continuing artistic challenges. You’re only as good as your last concert. For instance, I won’t leave here until seven o’clock this evening. I’ll be practicing. I’m preparing a piano concerto to be premiered in Berlin in three weeks time. It was written for me by Jorg Widmann.”

Bronfman is totally dedicated to piano playing. He doesn’t teach – except for the occasional master class – and confessions of hobbies have to be coaxed out of him. “I’m not a bad table tennis player, I read a lot, and I love playing chess – often on the computer these days. I played a master once – I lost of course – but he said I had natural talent for chess.”

Our shepherdess stood up. The meter had run its course and I suspected Bronfman was thinking about lunch, after which he would be back in that room wrestling with musical subtleties beyond my comprehension.


6 Responses to “Yefim Bronfman, pianistic force, in two acts”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    A bit surprised to…hear that Gergyev played the piano, I thought he conducted the orchestra.
    Want me fresh reviews; here there are.
    Couple of weeks ago I heard Jeremmy Menuhin play in Bucharest the same Brahms No.1. He was just a tad beyond disappointing,actually he was pretty bad…..conductor was another big name ( son of ) Thomas Fischer-Diskau, pretty good and he kept his head turned to Menuhin Jr. all the time to keep young Menuhin (63, keynne hora ) “with us”.
    Last nite, tough, I was right at the Berlin Phil. hall with: Martha Argerich and Ricardo Chailly WITH THE Berlin Phil. Schumann piano concerto, so there !!!!
    Comment : DO NOT SIT IN Sektion “F” against the piano because you shall NOT hear the piano as it should. Anyway, Argerich was not 100%, obviously under the weather, picking up her hankie in short intervals and throwing it among the cords, very cute, but….. – Berlin these days (Nov.-Dec) some O Celsius – and tempi confused at times.
    Tonite I am seeing Carmen with(out) Alagna. When ticket purchased in Syd. /internet three months back Alagna WAS in it, a few days BEFORE the actual performance he ain’t doing it…and NO REFUNDS, plane and hotel already reserved and paid for, NO refunds either, so, HELLO VON BERLIN !!!!! Anyway, I hope that this time we may have a happy ending, Carmen and Don Jose make up and dine at “Otto’s” in Wooloomooloo….where else.
    (who says I can’t do reviews !!!)

  2. gabrielle gouch says:

    Thanks for this beautiful review. Obviously I went to the wrong concert this week.
    I am referring to the London Symphony Orchestra in the Opera House with Valery Gergiev playing the piano in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

    I hated Gergiev’s playing. For him acrobatics were more important than the music.

    Many people like the banging so he was called back for encores. And his encores were more of the same.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Sorry, Gabrielle, but Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano concerto IS ALL ABOUT “acrobatics”, in fact experiments in music, something Prokofiev was obsessed with. I also heard it recently played with what appeared total abandon by another well known Russian pianist to whom “originality” is a calling card.

      • Otto Waldmann says:

        Sorry, forgot to mention: the pianist was Andrei Gavrilov !!!Heard him in Bucharest a few weeks back….

  3. Eion Isaac says:

    Music is great .Even was there in Temple times and King David Played.For mine Calbach and Zmirot plus Some Klemzer is great and emerging Jewish Folk and Serious Ballads from all Spectrums of Israel.

  4. david singer says:

    Great article. Wonderful interview. You were really privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to meet and converse with Bronfman.

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