Who is the most important composer of piano sonatas since Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert? Sergei Prokofiev might, at first blush, seem like an unlikely answer to that question; Yefim Bronfman, however, believes a strong case can be made for the Russian composer, who wrote nine works in the form from 1907 through 1947. As the famed pianist points out, Johannes Brahms wrote a mere three such sonatas, the first two appearing when he was just 19. Béla Bartók composed just one work in this form, and Maurice Ravel only produced what he called a Sonatine.
“The sonata form was explored to the fullest between Beethoven and Schubert,” Bronfman said. “They went so far that no composer wanted to touch it, and I think Prokofiev was the only one who was able, and very successfully so, to continue that form and create something of his own. I think some of the sonatas are really just as beautiful, if I may be so courageous as to say so, as the ones of Schubert. I would say especially the last four sonatas, which are remarkable in expression, color and imagination.”
Bronfman will perform Prokofiev’s three “War Sonatas,” written during World War II, in a Symphony Center Presents Piano Series recital May 1. The concert is in conjunction with the pianist’s presentation of the nine sonatas spread over three concerts in three different venues in 2015-16: the Staatskapelle in Berlin, Carnegie Hall in New York City and Herz Hall at the University of California at Berkeley. Chicago-area audiences got a preview of this ambitious undertaking last summer, when Bronfman performed all nine sonatas during two concerts (reduced from the originally planned three performances) at the Ravinia Festival.
“There aren’t many pianists,” wrote Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein, “with technique and stamina outsized enough to take on this bulk of Prokofiev’s solo keyboard music in two big gulps within three nights, as the Uzbekistan-born American pianist is doing here. But Bronfman did so with blazing power in the big Russian manner, tempered with subtlety and nuance, in the first of his now-revised programs.”
Bronfman recalls that he was just 8 or 9 years old when he first heard recordings of the Prokofiev piano sonatas by acclaimed Russian-born pianists such as Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horwitz and Sviatoslav Richter and quickly became a fan. “Somehow, it made a very strong impression,” he said. “You know how sometimes you listen to a performance of a certain piece, and it really moves you? That’s what happened with those particular pieces.”
He has gone on to be associated with Prokofiev as much if not more than any other composer. A year after his Carnegie Hall debut in 1989, Bronfman made his first recording of the Prokofiev sonatas (Nos. 7 and 8), and he would go on to record the complete set, as well as all five of the composer’s piano concertos with conductor Zubin Mehta and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. All these recordings were compiled in a five-CD set that was released on the Sony Classical label in 2013.
Aside from occasional performances of Sonatas No. 7 and 8 and a rare recital here and there including the No. 6, Bronfman, surprisingly, has not played these works for more than two decades and had to relearn some of them for this season’s concerts.
The first of the three “War Sonatas,” which Richter once described as a “world without reason or equilibrium,” is the No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82. It was written in 1939-40 after the war had begun in Europe but had not yet arrived in Russia. Bronfman said it anticipates the bloodshed that is to come. The No. 7 in B-flat Major (Stalingrad), Op. 83, dates to 1939-42. “The war was happening outside his windows as he was writing this sonata,” Bronfman said. The last of the three, No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84, was completed in 1944 as the war in Europe was nearing its end and has a more upbeat mood. By this time, his relationship with writer and librettist Mira Mendelson had led to a separation from his wife; Bronfman believes the composer’s feelings for his new companion can be heard in some its romantic passages.
While presenting Prokofiev’s “War Sonatas” on one program would seem like a natural grouping, Bronfman struggled with the idea. “I was tormented about putting them together because I think it is a little bit over the top,” he said. “It’s kind of a tour de force, because they are very, very difficult — also physically challenging. Especially No. 6 and 8, they are very long pieces. And No. 7 is a very hard piece mentally and technically. But I think it makes a lot of sense to program [the three] together, because it has definitely that element of the 1940s, probably the most important part of the century. It was a very dark and tormented period in our history of the 20th century that was incredibly well depicted in those sonatas.”
Audiences will have another opportunity to hear Bronfman in a set of three concerts in February 2017, when he joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-long presentation of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. He will join Music Director Riccardo Muti and the CSO in the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 — a solo appearance that he’s regarding as a highlight of his 2016-17 activities.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.