Haydn’s 60-plus keyboard sonatas have gotten surprisingly short-shrift on recital programs over the years. Given their ear-catching inventiveness and sheer accessibility, particularly in the later sonatas, their neglect is dumbfounding. Yefim Bronfman performed one of those late gems — C Major Sonata, Hob XVI: 50 — at his Washington Performing Arts Society recital at Strathmore Hall on Friday, drawing out its stylistic affinity to the earliest, Haydn-indebted piano sonatas Beethoven was just embarking on at the time.
Listening to Bronfman’s understated way with this piece, one couldn’t help recalling his younger days as a Russian firebrand of the keyboard, when his performances sometimes overwhelmed the music with their virtuosic zeal. Here, though, was playing full of nuance and classical restraint. Indeed, the puckish wit in Haydn’s brief final movement (where a waltz tune repeatedly stops short, collects itself and tumbles back to its start) was treated so subtly and straightforwardly that it read as more of a structural device than a typically Haydnesque chuckle.
Bronfman’s way with Brahms’s Third Piano Sonata was more extroverted. This work — one of the earliest Brahms wrote, at the age of 20 — is a lengthy (five-movement), mercurial score that does nothing in half-steps and can, in some performances, feel stitched together from too many conflicting fabrics. Bronfman embraced its stream-of-consciousness trajectory, reveling in its patchwork of extremes in the outer movements (wild leaps in volume, writing for the highest and lowest registers on the keyboard, tumultuous phrases juxtaposed with serene ones), and finding a rapt concentration in the two andante movements. But it was instructive that, for all the emotional range he drew from Brahms’s writing, Bronfman’s playing retained the rounded tone, liquid phrasing and refusal to barnstorm that characterized his Haydn. This was gorgeous Brahms playing that never denied the intensity of feeling in the music but stated it with a naturalness and glow that was very special.
After the wild ride of the Brahms, Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 sounded like something from the classical era in its metrical regularity and clear line of thought. Here, too, was a piece with a hefty first movement that progresses from the lyrical – more than a whiff of Prokofiev’s ballet-writing permeates the opening material — to the tempestuous. An here, again, Bronfman brought a poetic sensibility to music that could easily trigger unrelenting, Soviet-style hammering in a less sensitive artist. He distilled some lovely atmosphere in the slow movement (with its swooning, almost tropically tinged melodic material), and saved up his most punishing, bravura attack for the relatively short but cataclysmic finale. Throughout even the densest and most furious pages of this wartime work, Bronfman kept key thematic material clear and layered the sonorities with a fine ear for timbral color. Despite the brevity of the recital — there was barely 70 minutes’ worth of music — Bronfman delivered the kinds of concentrated goods that couldn’t have left anyone feeling shortchanged.
Banno is a freelance writer.