Yefim Bronfman likens Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 to chamber music

Yefim Bronfman returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with two works on two programs, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22.

Frank Stewart

By the time his career was roaring in the late 1980s, pianist Yefim Bronfman was especially known for his performances in big, demonstrative 20th-century Russian repertory, especially that of Sergei Prokofiev, which dominated his early recordings.

But in recent years, his focus has shifted to more recent Russian composers and different kinds of works. “I had many years with Prokofiev, and I have a lot of curiosity about other repertory,” Bronfman said. In June, for example, he joined the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam for the premiere of a new piano concerto by Russian-born composer Elena Firsova, and he is set to take on Alfred Schnittke’s little-heard 1979 Piano Concerto in the 2022-23 season. 

“I do a lot of new music, and a lot concertos that I never heard before,” Bronfman said. “Of course, I do the Beethovens and Brahmses, because they are not bad pieces, after all.”

Indeed, it will be as soloist in Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 that Bronfman will be heard when he joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time since a Ravinia Festival concert in 2019. He will help open the orchestra’s 2022-23 season Sept. 22-23 and 27 with Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti on the podium. Bronfman is also the featured soloist Sept. 24 at the CSO’s annual Symphony Ball, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22. (Patrons not planning to attend the full evening of festivities can purchase tickets just for the concert.)

“The piano part is part of the symphony, part of the bigger picture. You have to really blend with the orchestra. It’s like chamber music in a way.” — Yefim Bronfman on Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1

Bronfman has played fewer performances of Brahms’ two piano concertos in recent years, because he has wanted to focus on other concertos of more or less the same period, like Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, which he recorded for an album released in 2011. “But, of course, I’m always happy to play a Brahms concerto,” he said. “Both of them are magnificent works. I’ve done No. 2 in Chicago several times. The first one I’ve done less, many years ago.”

Besides being a challenging work to play, Bronfman said, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is also the most symphonic of the big, popular piano concertos. “The piano part is part of the symphony, part of the bigger picture,” he said. “You have to really blend with the orchestra. It’s like chamber music in a way.” He recalls hearing an old mantra about this concerto that goes something like this: If the orchestra is not good but the pianist is great, it will be not such a good performance. Conversely, if the pianist not so good but the orchestra is great, it will be a good performance. “An interesting analogy, and it has some truth in it.”

Like many other performers, Bronfman’s live engagements were wiped out during the COVID-19 shutdown, and only now is his touring more or less back to normal. “I’m happy to play in public, and we’ll see what happens next.” What has not returned yet is his travel to Asia. A tour to that part of the world with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was one of the first things canceled when the pandemic hit. In May, he is set to visit Korea and Japan with another orchestra, but he is not sure if it will happen. “Things are scheduled, and I hope they take place,” he said.

Inhibiting his return to a regular touring schedule has been all the challenges with air travel — constant delays, flight cancellations and lost luggage. “The travel has been really brutal, especially in Europe,” Bronfman said. “A lot of people have complained, and I have complained a lot myself.” He tries to travel by car or train, avoiding airports as much as possible.  

At 64, Bronfman believes he is a different pianist than the fiery teenager who made his international debut with Zubin Mehta and the Montreal Symphony in 1975. “I have definitely changed,” he said. “If I didn’t change, I would worry. As you get older, you evolve, some things just have become different for me — the production of sound, just the music-making in general is different. The repertory is different. It just keeps evolving. And I’m happy about it.”

Although he performed six concerts with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena during a European tour in late August and early September, he is performing less chamber music than previously in his career. That change is motivated in part by his desire to play more solo recitals, which he has urged his agent to book. “If you try, you can get them,” he said. “But maybe not as many as there used to be in the 1950s and ’60s.”

At the same time, his repertoire is constantly changing. In addition to performing new works, he is adding lesser-known works like the Schnittke concerto and he is regularly setting aside staples he has long performed to give himself a break. This year, for example, he has returned to Sergei Rachmaninov’s popular Piano Concerto No. 3 after a hiatus of about a dozen years. “I wanted to come back to it, because I have some new ideas,” Bronfman said. “I used to play it a lot, but I stopped for many years, and now I’m back with it. I’m excited to play it again. It seems new and fresh.”

In addition, his whole approach to practice and rehearsal has changed. “The way I work is different,” he said. “I work more intensely and I do more detailed work. Things I wasn’t seeing before I see now. I’m much more demanding of myself. And I have to work hard, because as you age you don’t have the capacity to do what you used to able to do so easily. I can do the same thing but with a little more work.”