Pianist pounds Prokofiev into submission — with grace

Yefim Bronfman

Unlike Neal Armstrong, he didn’t set foot on the moon.

And unlike Sir Edmund Percival Hillary, he never climbed Mount Everest.

Instead, virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman has ascended the dizzying heights of music. And he proved his solo mettle on a recent Sunday afternoon in Berkeley by whizzing through the first four of nine Sergei Prokofiev sonatas, the ones that best show off the Russian composer’s amazing keyboard skills as a teenager.

I couldn’t trust my ears — or my eyes. Because Bronfman was that unbelievably good.

Technically flawless. As fast as a Bugatti.

And a showman.

So he flourished without sheet music (he’s been playing Prokofiev forever, I know — and, in fact, featured the composer on his first Sony recordings).

It took no time to recognize he was playing by heart and with heart.

Local fans can get another crack at his talent soon, because he’ll return to the 678-seat Hertz Hall, and Cal Performances, to astound audiences with the rest of the Prokofiev cycle — sonatas 5, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. March 4, and 8 and 9 at 3 p.m. March 6.

He’ll then do a re-run at Carnegie Hall in May.

The initial piece — Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Opus 1, which Prokofiev waited until age 15 to compose — was a harbinger of Bronfman things to come: The lower registers he played bounced off the ceiling as he assaulted the keyboard.

Only the applause that followed was louder.

On Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Opus 14, I found it marvelous to watch the grace and panache generated by the bulky man with thinning dark hair as his left hand intermittently arched over his right.

And I listened with joy as he blanketed the keyboard as rapidly and completely as January’s blizzard covered the East Coast, flawlessly shifting from thunderous passages to those as tranquil and slow as a line at the DMV.

During the eight-part Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Opus 28, I got lost in my own fantasy that his fingers were guiding me to the clouds — and a notion that he could change moods as quickly as Madonna changes costumes and appearances.

During intermission, before Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Opus 29, Bronfman’s concert grand piano needed tuning,

battered by the percussiveness stemming from his hands.

Which had grabbed my attention before.

In a news story about him playing a Béla Bartok concert late last year in Vienna with such vigor that a finger wound opened and bled all over the keys.

He finished the concert anyway, not wanting to disappoint the crowd.

That one had pulled me back to another incident, in 2011, when he broke a finger on his left hand while playing Prokofiev’s eighth sonata in Berkeley.

He managed to finish the recital and play two encores.

Bronfman, a 57-year-old Uzbekistan-born Grammy Award winner, instead of being a doctor without borders is a black-cloaked musician without borders — making it a point not to be labeled as either a Russian pianist or a specialist in Russian music.

Philip Roth immortalized him in his novel, “The Human Stain” — for performing Prokofiev with bravado, and for being a musician who “doesn’t let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever’s in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.”

I wouldn’t dispute Roth’s word portrait.

Bronfman, of course, can be described as many things.

But never a quitter.

The pianist, who emigrated at 15 to Israel, where he became a citizen, and then became a U.S. citizen in 1989, has soloed with the San Francisco, Boston and Cleveland Symphonies, the New York and Vienna Philharmonics, the Philadelphia Orchestra and countless other world-class ensembles.

Performing works of all lengths.

This concert was brief (less than 90 minutes including intermission and non-Prokofiev encore, Robert Schumann’s Arabeske in C major, Opus 18) but — to me —extremely satisfying.

Like eating in a French restaurant whose portions are small but providing exquisite tastes.

Bronfman’s hands may have often been a blur, but none of his notes were. They lingered in the air long after he hit them. And, in my mind, way after the concert was done.

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or www.vitalitypress.com/

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