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Bronfman/Salonen/Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall

Lumbering and lugubrious-looking, Yefim Bronfman is a pianist with a wondrous capacity to galvanise a hall, particularly with the Russian repertoire which is his speciality. And in addition to his kosher achievements he has some odd additional ones up his sleeve. He had a bit part in Disney’s ‘Fantasia 2000’, for whose soundtrack his performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto was also roped in; his recordings of the Rachmaninov concertos were pirated and passed off as being by the now-notorious Joyce Hatto.

But his official biography makes no mention of the fires in which his talent was forged: it glosses over his family’s sufferings, first at the hands of the Nazis, then under the anti-Semitic Soviets. His own persecution began when he was publicly singled out as a traitor at his music academy in Moscow for having decided, with his parents and sister, to emigrate to Israel. It was only through a series of happy chances that his brilliance was eventually recognised, first by Isaac Stern, then by Zubin Mehta, and clinchingly by Leonard Bernstein. Now based in New York, he doesn’t visit these shores often enough.

That he was here to kick off Esa-Pekka Salonen’s year-long Bartok series at the Southbank Centre was due to his long and fruitful partnership with this Finnish conductor: 14 years ago they won a Grammy for their recording of Bartok’s piano concertos. Launching into the austere and concentrated Concerto No 1, it was clear from the start they were going to reprise their earlier excellence. Bartok’s close-knit contrapuntal web was transparently spun, with Bronfman delivering the descending rows of staccato chords with tender forcefulness. His muscular sound had a singing clarity, ideally matched in this quintessential piece of Twenties Modernism by the Philharmonia’s percussion and woodwind; Bartok’s famous remark that this work was difficult ‘as much for the orchestra as for the audience’ was belied by the confident ease with which Bronfman and Salonen sailed through it.

This series is subtitled ‘Inside the World of Bela Bartok’, and there are fascinating things to come. Salonen began this first concert with the astonishingly Straussian ‘Kossuth’, and ended it with an account of Bartok’s surreal pantomime ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ which was coruscating in its sheer evocativeness.