Yefim Bronfman is a heavyweight virtuoso: a force of nature, whose fame has spread beyond musical circles. He even makes an appearance in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, with the author describing him as “Bronfman the Brontosaur” and “Mr Fortissimo”.
The powerhouse pianist is now set to take the Proms by storm, joining the Berlin Philharmonic and its conductor Sir Simon Rattle for a performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2. One of the biggest works in the concerto repertoire, it seems an appropriately Olympian choice for Proms 2012.
Despite Roth’s description, “Mr Fortissimo” — better known to friends and colleagues as Fima — is soft-spoken and reflective as he talks from his home in New York.
“I personally feel this is one of the hardest pieces to play,” he says of the Brahms. “It presents musical and technical challenges like no other concerto. One has to overcome a lot of physical issues to perform it in such a way that the audience will not feel its difficulty. One has to make it seem effortless. At the same time, it’s such a fantastic piece of music with so many subtleties, wonderful harmonies and great, great moments. And in spite of its size — 45-50 minutes — it forms one wonderful long line from the first note to the last, which is a remarkable feat for the pianist to achieve.”
Bronfman’s story began in Tashkent, where he was born into a musical Jewish family in 1958. Both his parents were pianists and his sister is a violinist. Inevitably, this being the Soviet Union, practising Judaism was not feasible, but Bronfman has always identified strongly with his cultural background.
He speaks with remarkable positivity of his childhood in the USSR. “Life was very nice for us in Tashkent,” he recalls. “I had a very good school, the musical scene was excellent and the town was full of colourful architecture and historic sites. One could go to Samarkand or Bukhara for the day.
“There was a large Jewish community at the time I was growing up — a population of about 50,000. There was an old community of Bukhara Jews who have lived in that region for centuries. I believe most of them have now left Tashkent and settled in Israel, and a lot of them I sometimes see in America and around Europe.” His own family, though, had moved to Tashkent only after the war when his father was offered a job; and when he was 15, they emigrated to Israel to join his mother’s parents, who had settled there after leaving Poland.
Moving to Israel was a step into the unknown for the teenage musician. “There was an element of uncertainty — at the time there was no computer, so one couldn’t gather information and be prepared the way one can now. But we were very fortunate. At the time we came to Israel, in the 1970s, many great musicians would play there regularly — famous conductors and soloists like Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Pablo Casals. It was incredible.”
Fate struck when he had an opportunity to audition for Stern, who provided invaluable guidance at the start of his training. Later the pair made numerous sonata and chamber music recordings together. “He was a man who truly cared about young musicians,” says Bronfman, “and he set an example for future generations to care about them too, and to give them the guidance they need. For me as a young musician it was a tremendous opportunity to play with him. I learned not only a lot about music, but also that it’s important to form yourself as a person. You have to live life to the full so that you can express your music in a way that you can’t if you just practise and do nothing else.”
Aged 18, Bronfman emigrated again, this time to the United States to study with the piano pedagogue Leon Fleisher. Pianists are often citizens of the world in terms of style and influence, and Bronfman is convinced that the existence of a particular Russian school or American school of playing is not feasible today — and probably never was.
“So many Russian teachers and famous musicians left Russia in the ’70s and began teaching in the West,” he says. “Generations of pianists growing up in America had Russian teachers, so they have taken on some of that approach. But think of the famous teacher in Russia, Heinrich Neuhaus: he was half German and half Polish, he came from the school of western Europe and he taught many of the great Russian pianists. He created a Russian school, but he brought it from Europe.
“I don’t think the idea of schools is relevant. But I do think that French music requires one type of sound and Russian music another. Sometimes there are similarities — when you play Prokofiev you can feel the French influence in his music and you have to reflect that in your sound. But I think there is a school for each different composer, and you learn from the composer himself how to apply it.”
Increasingly Bronfman has been finding special rewards in performing the music of living composers, commissioning new works himself on occasion. His recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto won him a Grammy (the latest of several) three years ago
“There are so many great talents out there,” he says, “so many wonderful young composers, and I think it’s important to be involved in this. Some are only just forming their own voices. It’s work in progress, but it’s alive — that’s what’s fascinating.”
Bronfman gives more than 80 concerts each year on average — highlights for the rest of 2012 include a performance at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia in October — and he has at least 24 recordings to his name, with more on the way. Even when he relaxes, he does it at the keyboard.
“I enjoy playing music, listening to music and exploring music that I don’t necessarily perform on stage, but study at home for my own pleasure.” Admittedly, he has a reputation as a “foodie” — he appeared on American TV as a judge in a cookery show. “I did the show a couple of times,” he shrugs. “But really, I like to work.”