No shortcuts will do for pianist Bronfman

October 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Yefim Bronfman finishes lunch, turns his hands palms-up and looks at his finger ends.

"Not today, no more practicing today," says Bronfman, practically as if he is speaking to himself.

His hands are padded like a bear's paws, but the ends of his fingers are about to split open. He had spent the two hours before lunch across the street in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, rehearsing Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor Lan Shui. The Bartok No. 1 is a demanding piece, but that's not the reason that Bronfman's fingers are about to begin bleeding.

The Russian-Israeli-American pianist is one of the world's great piano-playing machines. His all-but-infallible memory and equally formidable chops make him one of the less than a handful of pianists who have ever been able to maintain the three most difficult concertos in their repertory -- the Rachmaninoff Third, the Prokofiev Second and the Bartok Second -- in a single season.

Bronfman's fingers are about to bleed because he's a busy pianist who's also an honest one.

"For many things, there are no shortcuts, you just need time," Bronfman says pensively.

He's the piano world's steady Eddie. While there have been plenty of dazzling Bronfman performances over the years, no one can seem to remember a bad one.

Although Bronfman is still a young man -- he's 40 -- he seems to have been around forever. Since 1976, when he made his New York debut as an 18-year-old with Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic, his career seems to have traveled an effortlessly upward, if not particularly dramatic, trajectory.

"Let me assure you, it hasn't all been upward, and there have been plenty of not-so-good performances along the way," Bronfman says with a laugh.

Not in this listener's 18 years of attending Bronfman's performances -- and certainly not in his remarkable (and growing) discography, which now includes complete sets of the Prokofiev Concertos and Sonatas, the Bartok Concertos and assorted discs of Russian music (including a dazzling "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Mussorgsky), and which will eventually include most of the important music of Chopin and Brahms.

But Bronfman makes records the way he conducts the rest of his life -- so don't expect these records to be released over night.

"I don't learn music to make records -- I learn it to live with it," says the pianist, who studied each of the Prokofiev and Bartok works he recorded for at least eight years before he recorded them.

Although his recording of the Bartok concertos (with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic) won several international awards, and although he's been playing all three concertos since his early 20s, he's going to walk out on stage tonight with the music.

Although the Bartok Second may make greater demands on the soloist's technical ability, the First makes greater demands on the ensemble. It's like chamber music from hell -- with huge solos for several instruments in the orchestra (including especially onerous parts for percussion and timpani) and constantly changing rhythms.

The Bartok First is a work in which disasters are more likely to be the rule rather than the exception. On one embarrassing occasion in Chicago, pianist Peter Frankl and Georg Solti -- both got lost, and the performance came to virtual halt. It is for such reasons that Bronfman, along with such distinguished colleagues as Andras Schiff and Krystian Zimerman, has begun bringing the music out on stage.

"I've played it with several great conductors who have got lost -- and I don't want it to happen to me," Bronfman says. "Playing the Bartok First is a risky business."


What: BSO under Lan Shui with pianist Yefim Bronfman

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $21-$55

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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