Talent will out

Maybe it's because he's a Russian that they can't keep Yefim Bronfman down. By Robert Cowan
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The Independent Culture
"Suppression helps talent." So said 38-year-old Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman. Or, rather, that's what we're told he said. "You can't hold me responsible for what I might have said in an interview!" he now exclaims, his words framed by laughter. "But, as it happens, I don't feel at all ashamed of that remark. Let me try to explain. Yes, I do believe that talent cannot be suppressed. I also believe that someone like Shostakovich, who suffered so much and still emerged as a great composer, wrote differently to the way he might have done had he not suffered under a repressive regime."

So does that mean that only listeners who shared Shostakovich's plight can really understand his music? "Not necessarily. Shostakovich's music has a lot of different layers. It's not only the character of the music that fascinates us, but the originality of its ideas and that incredible level of intense creativity. The way he writes for piano is quite crazy, but it works: he conjures up some phenomenal sonorities."

Bronfman, who emigrated to Israel in 1973 and then to America in 1976, has recently been playing the young Shostakovich's madcap First Piano Concerto, itself a synthesis of Russian and Western influences - and very much a product of the mid-1930s. "I don't think our view of music should relate exclusively to the period of its composition," he says; "there's far more to it than that: the abstract element, for example, which is why so many people have difficulty understanding music. Brahms, too, was both a real `original' and a product of his time: he was deeply affected by what went on around him and a lot of people are indifferent to his music because they don't really understand the world that he emerged from. I think there is a certain way, a right way of understanding music, and it requires a lot of work on behalf of the listener."

Bronfman's growing discography has Prokofiev at its core - the piano concertos, piano sonatas and violin sonatas taking pride of place. Prokofiev's relationship to the Soviet authorities was highly complex and some would say that his later works bore witness to a damaging level of artistic compromise. He became uncharacteristically mild-mannered - or at least that's how it often appeared. What might have happened if Prokofiev had emigrated to, say, England; would his style have "softened" in the same way?

"No, he would have developed it quite differently," says Bronfman decisively. "It's obvious to me that a creative artist's environment affects his work a great deal, but some composers mellow as a matter of course. Take Bartok, the composer of such aggressive pieces as The Miraculous Mandarin ballet, the Piano Sonata and the First Piano Concerto. Then, suddenly, you have far mellower works like the Third Piano Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra; or, in the case of Shostakovich, there's the Viola Sonata. You and I haven't experienced old age yet, but one day our lives will draw towards a close and our attitudes will change. And that `change' can be either a softening of style or a greater drive towards the abstract - as with Matisse, or, indeed, Prokofiev. You talk about his mellowing, and yet his Ninth Piano Sonata is inventive, intimate and abstract - a real `summing up' of his life's work."

Of all the Prokofiev piano works that Bronfman has tackled so far, the Second Concerto ranks among the greatest. "I feel that it's his best piano concerto," he says. "It is also the most `virtuoso' work in the series; and when it comes to endurance, no concerto I know of is more demanding. Imagine coming out on to the stage, playing the introduction to the first movement and launching into that enormous, seven-minute cadenza. By the time you've finished, you're ready for the ambulance; but then you have to deal with the perpetuum mobile second movement, which poses completely different technical problems - it's such a sarcastic piece - and there's the punchy Intermezzo, which is different again. Best of all is the last movement, where the second subject enters almost like a lullaby. There's so much in the piece: it can be biting, grand and very romantic, almost in the manner of Schumann."

Bronfman learnt the concerto from an early Ashkenazy recording, made live in concert at the Moscow Conservatory. "It includes some of the most hair-raising piano-playing I've ever heard." His own interpretation has developed considerably since the first time he played the work three years ago: "It's getting a different shape. The more you get to know a piece, the more you understand its language and the more things you can `do' with it. On the other hand, you occasionally discover you can do less. Some people find that the hardest challenge of all is to strip away all unnecessary emotionalism and get to the `source'. I hope that I, too, achieve that sometimes."

I ask Bronfman whether obedience to the letter ever conflicts with musical instinct. He grins mischievously. "I have to tell you that if I just went ahead and `did it my way' I would feel very guilty - and you know all about Jewish guilt! I have to live with that. Anyway, I would try to compromise - first by finding out why the marking was there in the first place, and then by investigating other editions of the same piece. Then, hopefully, I would prove to myself that I was wrong to think that it shouldn't be there!"

But for Yefim Bronfman, it's not so much "what" you read, as "how" you read it. "When you listen to really great performers," he says, "you soon realise how important that is. Casals was a good example of what I mean. He'd play a climax, and the impact was unbelievable - not because he was louder or more forceful than other cellists, but because of the way he prepared a particular phrase."

Bronfman views preparation as being very much of the essence - certainly in recording, where he prefers a minimum of fuss and a maximum of spontaneity. "I try to create the illusion that I have an audience there in front of me," he says. "I do my best to actually create an environment that's as close as possible to live music-making - by being perfectly `warmed up', playing full takes and doing my very best at that moment."

His interest in modern music has led Rodion Shchedrin to write him a piano sonata ("it's a wonderful piece and I'll be premiering it in the spring"); he's tried conducting ("how did you know about that? It's true - but there are already too many instrumentalists-turned-bad-conductors!"); and he has a talent for imaginative programme-planning.

But he has never entered a piano competition. "The competitive element doesn't particularly appeal," he says sagely. "Anyway, I believe that true talent will always show through." In other words, he's talking real prizes, not just trophies.

n Bronfman plays Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto with the RPO at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. Booking: 0171-589 8212

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