The Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo remains the best place to hear a piano recital in Orange County. The room seems just right, both visually and acoustically, to render the grandeur and intimacy of the solo piano repertoire. Soka also has two of the better pianos in the area, Steinways from Hamburg and New York. Looking down on the concert platform, a listener becomes fairly absorbed in the musical proceedings.
And luckily, Soka keeps on bringing major pianists to perform here. Though there are only two on this year’s chamber series, they are Murray Perahia and, opening the classical season at the venue Tuesday night, Yefim Bronfman. The Soviet/Israeli/American pianist, one of the busiest on the international circuit, brought out a sizable crowd (though Soka is rarely full) that welcomed him warmly and attended to the music avidly.
The program was an odd one, though, and ultimately less than satisfying. It seemed to this listener not very carefully chosen. The first half was anchored by Schumann’s lengthy “Humoreske,” Op. 20, one of the composer’s most scattered works, jumping from mood to mood almost in a stream of consciousness style and without so much as the slightest effort to focus the narrative. This was preceded by the concert opener, Bartok’s Suite, Op. 14, an acerbic and abstract (nothing wrong with that) and motoric work that nevertheless ends anticlimactically.
The second half of the program included Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque,” an early and transitional work, not entirely characteristic of the composer or very tightly constructed, and was capped by Prokofiev’s gnarled and fierce Sonata No. 7.
One could probably listen to Bronfman play (anything) for hours without taking offense. His playing is invariably musical and well motivated. His tone and phrasing are warm and singing. His technique is right up there near the top. But he is not the most personable or personal interpreter.
“I’m not interested in expressing myself,” the pianist said in an interview a few years ago. “I like to be able to get inside the composer’s mind as much as I can in every way possible. I don’t like eccentricity — it’s not interesting.”
That’s all well and good, but both the Schumann and Debussy demand personal expression and a certain eccentricity from the performer, the feeling that he or she has digested the material fully and is experiencing it, in all its eccentricity, in the moment. There were many beautiful things in Bronfman’s interpretations of these pieces, particularly in slower, sparer, more songful passages, where his touch took care with colorings. But too often his approach was hasty, and texturally clouded, and just, well, impersonal.
He actually stumbled a little in the opening of the Bartok, the rhythms not cleanly articulated (it sounded like he wasn’t quite warmed up). He managed after that, but it was an easygoing reading of rather severe work.
Until the Prokofiev arrived, Bronfman was in an understated mood. Shortly after the Prokofiev began, we heard our first fortissimo of the evening. The pianist, famous for his brawn, appeared most at home in this war sonata, and the piece proceeded headlong and vigorously. The famous “Precipitato” finale was taken at a medium tempo, not rushed, which allowed it to build steadily and overwhelmingly. Audience reaction confirmed that this was the most compelling reading of the recital.
Next for Bronfman: A drive up the freeway and appearances with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on their season-opening subscription concerts. Soka’s chamber series continues with the Emerson Quartet (Oct. 15) and includes (later) such interesting fare as the premiere of a new work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw (performed by the Calidore String Quartet), and the performance by Matt Haimovitz of all six Bach cello suites over two nights coupled with new Bach-inspired pieces by the likes of Philip Glass, Du Yun and Vijay Iyer. What’s more, the ticket prices on this series are most reasonable.