Yefim Bronfman: Reasons to be cheerful

Even with the musical world at his fingertips the Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman remains pessimistic. Michael Church finds out why

Friday 21 September 2001 00:00

Before meeting Yefim Bronfman, I immerse myself in his recordings. I'm bowled over by their passionate energy, by the rapier-like precision of his Prokofiev, and by his Tchaikovsky Seasons' serene charm. As these performances give a strong sense of physicality, I begin to construct a mental image, so when the man himself walks into the room, it comes as a shock. He's more like a diffident bear: benign, a shade mournful, awkward, almost clumsy, in his movements.

Since he's almost ubiquitous at present, we start with his current activities – a whirlwind summer encompassing tours in Japan, France and America, as well as the London concerts that continue on 25 September with Brahms's First Piano Concerto at the Festival Hall. As he reels off his engagements, his face lights up with optimism, but when I cheekily comment on this, the mournfulness returns. "I'm Russian. I cannot be optimistic. It is not in my nature," the 43-year-old explains.

Might he elaborate? Certainly. But the story on which he embarks turns out to be not about himself at all. It concerns his father Naum, a violinist from Odessa, whose concert career was cut short in 1939. Drafted into the Soviet army, he was captured and imprisoned in Germany. "And one day, as he and other POWs were being escorted from one camp to another, he escaped, rolled into a ditch and stayed there all night." After walking for a month, he arrived, emaciated, in Moscow, where he was promptly imprisoned and tortured as a spy until his commanding officer came home and asserted his innocence.

Things looked up when he met a pianist called Polina who, as a Jewish refugee in Poland, had had a comparably horrendous story. Naum got a job as violin professor in the Tashkent conservatoire, Polina taught the piano at home; Yefim's sister Elizabeth – born 12 years before him – developed a talent for the violin. "So I grew up surrounded by music, often hearing four instruments from different directions at once. When I heard a Bach Chaconne and tried to find the notes on the piano, they decided it was time for me to start learning properly. But I was not a prodigy – I was seven. I'm a late bloomer." He permits himself a fleeting smile.

But bloom he did, becoming a regular soloist for concerts at school. Tashkent, he says, was a cultivated city, but there was a worm in the bud. Soviet anti-Semitism was by no means a spent force, and the Moscow music academy that his sister attended – and to which he himself won a place – had a Jewish quota of 2 per cent. Moreover, his parents had begun to pine for contact with those remnants of their families who, having survived the Holocaust, had taken refuge in Israel. When, in 1973, they applied to emigrate there, too, that was the signal for a new persecution.

"I went back to school to say goodbye, because it was a great school and I'd liked it," says Bronfman. "But to ask to be allowed to leave the motherland was at that time almost unheard of, a crime worse than murder. Aged 14, I was called a traitor in front of 600 of my classmates." He pauses, the hurt palpable. "It was pure hypocrisy: the teacher who made that accusation left Russia herself a few years later. But I can understand their fear."

But Yefim's indictment was only the beginning. "Both my parents immediately lost their jobs, and no one would speak to us: we were treated like criminals. My father was also ordered retrospectively to pay for his education – he had to find 20,000 roubles, at a time when his salary was 300 roubles per month. He was forced to borrow from friends."

Next came the ritual robbery at the frontier: when the border guards had finished with them, they had just three suitcases, books, music, records, a camera, and a painting. Forbidden to take his Guarneri out of the country, his father had had to sell it to a student for an absurdly low price.

"Thinking about all this makes me so happy to be out of Russia. I took to Israel like a duck to water, but it was hard for me to see my father looking for a job at the age of 62." Yefim was taken on by Arie Vardi, Israel's leading piano teacher, who steered his pupil away from competitions and towards laying solid foundations. Yefim had won a scholarship that paid for his musical education, and since the president of the trust that awarded it was Isaac Stern, good things began to happen. First Zubin Mehta auditioned him and hired him to play in Montreal. Then Bronfman auditioned for Leonard Bernstein.

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"Bernstein was in such a hurry that he had his driver waiting with the car door open. I was told he had just five minutes, so I played Liszt's Paganini Etude in E Flat Major. Then he said, 'Can you play something else? Some Beethoven?', and I said I was working on Opus 10 No 3. I started to play, without repeats, as I expected to be stopped any moment, but found I was playing the whole thing. Next thing I knew, Bernstein was hugging and kissing my father, and was in tears." The upshot was an invitation to play an Amnesty concert with the Berlin Phil, but Stern vetoed it – his protégé wasn't ready yet.

Meanwhile, his career in the West was burgeoning fast, with a London début in 1979 and a Kennedy Center one two years later. As the Eighties progressed, he worked in turn with all the great orchestras, with his Carnegie Hall recital début coming in 1989. Two years after that, he gave a series of joint recitals with Isaac Stern in Russia – his first performances there since his emigration at 15. In that same year he won the Avery Fisher prize for outstanding achievement in music.

So, has Bronfman finally got out from under? Yes and no. At the end of our conversation, he reverts to the subject of his father, and to the importance of ensuring that the memoir Naum has just published in Russian be translated into English. "My father, now 90, is the ultimate survivor. I hope I've inherited that quality from him."

Yefim Bronfman with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 25 September 2001, 7.30pm (020-7960 4242)

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