When Yefim Bronfman performs Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with conductor Lionel Bringuier and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31, he will be tackling what is known as a real “finger buster,” a term used for a work that is awkwardly conceived for a pianist’s hands or physically demanding. The Brahms concerto is both.
For Bronfman, who is celebrated for his virtuoso technique and musical sensitivity, the epic difficulty of Brahms’ score is pretty much business as usual, although something unusual happened during a Berkeley recital last October: While performing the final two pages of Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, Bronfman literally busted a finger.
“I felt a very sharp pain,” the pianist said by phone from his apartment in New York. “Luckily, it was the last piece on the program. I finished the recital and managed to play two encores.”
Bronfman traveled to Los Angeles the next day, then straight into a rehearsal of Bartok’s Third Concerto with the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. “I realized there was a problem,” he said.
A doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center gave Bronfman the bad news. He had broken the fourth finger of his left hand, and it would take four to six weeks to heal. Concerts would have to be canceled. But Bronfman was determined not to miss an upcoming European tour on which he was scheduled to play all three Bartok concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra. So he did what any driven musician would do: He went to another doctor.
“I did not miss a single concert in Europe,” he said. And, since breaking his finger, he’s also performed Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata. Was there any trepidation when he came to those last two pages of the breathtakingly powerful finale?
“What is scary about this piece is the middle section of the last movement,” Bronfman said. “That’s when you feel the pain in your hands because it’s so grotesque and with such gigantic leaps there. You cannot take it easy at this point. It’s the most wonderful moment of the whole piece.”
Bronfman clearly likes challenges. Within the last five years, he’s performed premieres of demanding concertos by Salonen and Magnus Lindberg. Both composers have added to the pressure by delivering their scores late. “When trying to learn the Lindberg, I realized some of the passages are really unplayable,” Bronfman said. “Did he think I was like a piano machine that could play anything?”
But Bronfman has sympathy for composers who try to broaden the scope of piano technique. “When Prokofiev wrote his piano sonatas, people said they were impossible. But then came [Sviatoslav] Richter and [Emil] Gilels, and now everybody plays them.”
Few living pianists get the honor of being immortalized in a major novel by an esteemed author. In Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” (2000), the narrator attends a rehearsal at Tanglewood and says: “Then Bronfman appears ... He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso, a force of nature camouflaged in a sweatshirt. ... He doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing.”
For Bronfman, Roth’s dramatic tribute came as a surprise. “I was amazed at his description, but I had no idea who Philip Roth was,” he said. The pianist laughed, recalling Roth’s unflattering detail about his being a “sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.” The two artists have since become good friends.
Surprisingly, Bronfman, who is 54, didn’t learn Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto until 1988. “I recommend that every pianist learn some difficult pieces while they are still in their teens,” he said. “For instance, I learned Brahms’ First Concerto when I was 15, and it’s always much easier than the Second, where it takes a certain stretch in your hands and technique to bring it off effortlessly.”
Bronfman said he doesn’t want audiences to see the difficulties: “I put the technical challenges behind me as soon as possible so I can focus on the concerto’s grandeur and passion, intimacy and beauty,” he said. “And there’s the humor of the last movement. It’s Brahms at his most mature and divine.”
Bronfman also avoids distracting mannerisms at the keyboard.
“My greatest idols are the ones who played with poker faces and made great music,” Bronfman said. “Heifetz was such a genius. He didn’t lift an eyebrow. The same with Horowitz and Rubinstein. I pay for a ticket to hear music. If I want to see a dance, I go to the ballet.”
Born and raised in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Bronfman said his arrival in Israel in 1973 marked a turning point in his young life.
“I was about 14 years old, and Israel was where I decided I wanted to be a musician,” Bronfman said. “Within months of arriving, I heard some of the greatest musicians. Everybody was coming through Tel Aviv—Casals, Stern, Bernstein. Everybody.”
Bronfman, who holds dual citizenship, returns to Israel quite often, both to visit his older sister, Elizabeth, a violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and to perform with the orchestra there.
Being an Israeli and Jewish has deeply informed his life and work: “My mother is a Holocaust survivor, and my father was in the military fighting Germans during the war,” Bronfman said. “I’m very aware of the past of the Jewish people, particularly my mother, who is a direct victim of those horrible times. She was 13 when the war started. Most of her family got killed. She hid in the forest from the Germans.”
Bronfman added: “It makes a difference. Also, living in the Soviet Union, where Jews definitely felt like second-class citizens.”
In addition to his Bowl performance, Bronfman is scheduled to perform a solo recital in January at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I’m going to try to play Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata without breaking my finger,” he said.
Yefim Bronfman performs at the Hollywood Bowl on July 31 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit hollywoodbowl.com.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.