"Bronfman the brontosaur. Mr Fortissimo. Enter Bronfman to play Prokofiev at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring." Such was Philip Roth's memorable description of Yefim Bronfman in his 2000 novel The Human Stain, and indeed, these words were brought to life in Bronfman's all-Prokofiev recital Tuesday night at Ravinia.  This was the first of two recitals collectively traversing all nine of Prokofiev's piano sonatas – a repertoire that comprises some of the composer's most affecting music and in which Bronfman is nearly without peer.

Yefim Bronfman © Ravinia Festival
Yefim Bronfman
© Ravinia Festival

The hyper-Romantic First Sonata is hardly recognizable as Prokofiev, its brooding Russian Romanticism occupying a similar soundworld as the early works of Scriabin. Still, Bronfman provided strong advocacy for this powerful single movement work although I would have preferred a wider and more varied dynamic palette, even in these passionate outpourings of a youthful firebrand.

Though still a student composition, the Second Sonata, expanded to a classical four movement scheme, contains all the familiar hallmarks of a Prokofiev work. From the nervous kinetic energy of the opening movement, to the relentless drive of the scherzo, the murky labyrinth of harmonies in the slow movement, and the sardonic wit of the bravura finale, this was a performance that left one breathless.

The brilliant Third Sonata, also in one movement, was especially commendable for its tempestuous energy, only briefly relieved by a more lyrical secondary theme. The first real contrast of the evening didn't come until the Fourth Sonata, with its two opening movements being moderately paced and fairly subdued. The heart of the sonata is the somber second movement, where Bronfman artfully brought out the tragic melody over an undulating bass line. The sun finally shines through the clouds in the last movement. Here, more clarity and attention to detail in the rapid scalar passages would have been ideal, but this didn't inhibit Bronfman from bringing one of Prokofiev's warmest creations to a satisfying close.

The gentle (at least by Prokofiev's standards) Fifth Sonata was the only one Bronfman didn't perform from memory. As on his recording, Bronfman opted for the original version as opposed to the revisions Prokofiev made some 30 years later. I was especially taken by the touching lyricism Bronfman gave to the primary theme of the first movement, and the playful whimsy of the latter two. 

The ever-popular Seventh Sonata rounded off the evening – the middle of the so-called War Sonatas, it embodies one of the most powerful artistic responses to the tragedies of the Second World War. The challenges of the unforgiving motoric first movement were easily surmounted by steel-fingered Bronfman. The almost Romantic slow movement offered little respite, the dark shadows of tragedy always looming nearby. The violent perpetual motion toccata – a perennial audience favorite – closed the work in a dazzling firestorm of sound.

The bar is set very high indeed for Thursday night's conclusion of the cycle, and downtown Chicago concertgoers should rejoice in knowing that Bronfman is bringing the three War Sonatas to a recital at Symphony Center in the upcoming season.