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“There’s no autopilot in this business”

INTERVIEW. The curtains were drawn back on Aug 30 for Berlin's classical Musikfest and batons will keep waving through Sep 19. Highlights include Uzbek pianist Yefim Bronfman, performing Wed, Sep 4 at the Philharmonie.

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Photo by Simon Van Boxtel

Pianist Yefim Bronfman on playing Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 as part of Berlin’s Musikfest.

Born in Soviet Uzbekistan before emigrating to Israel at 15 and finally settling in New York, the precise but unassuming Bronfman melts behind the pieces he plays, producing delicate and subtle interpretations of works from Prokofiev to Beethoven to new pieces by living composers. Familiar to local audiences from his residency at the Berlin Philharmonic, he’s back for a one-off concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam as part of a whirlwind autumn tour that culminates with the start of his tenure as Artist in Residence at the New York Philharmonic.

How do you approach playing Bartók’s third and final piano concerto?

It’s like Mozart: every note has a meaning, every note counts. It’s his last piece and I think it has this very nostalgic quality. It’s very light in texture. It’s also like Bach: you can sense baroque elements, like in the last movement he goes back and forth between the past and present. This marking adagio religioso (on the second movement) also has a special meaning. It’s almost like those chords come from a cathedral. I think Bartók’s saying goodbye to the world, and he’s looking back not only on the sad but also the happy moments in his life. The last movement is almost a celebration of life: it’s full of hope.

The sounds of nature are also incorporated into this nostalgic, religious picture…

I think he recorded those bird calls while on a trip in North Carolina. Now, when I’m in the country I listen to the birds and it reminds me of Bartók. It’s interesting how many composers used bird calls: Messiaen’s music was full of nature. It also was very religious; almost all of the composers I can think of are religious – Schumann even has a piece called The Bird as Prophet.

Do you have any particular preparation for this piece?

Every piece that I play requires special preparation. There’s no autopilot in this business. Every piece requires a lot of patience with getting things just right.

How many hours do you end up practicing each day?

I’m happy with three, four good hours a day. Because, at least in my case, it’s very difficult to focus for longer than that. There comes a point when it becomes noise pollution and then you’re done – until the next day.

What role does new music play for you?

The most exciting thing for me is to collaborate with composers and to learn a new musical language. Because through this you also understand the old music better: you can see how the composer’s brain works, and when you go back to the old music you see it with a new perspective.

Royal Concertgebouw ORCHESTRA Amsterdam f. YEFIM BRONFMAN Wed, Sep 4, 20:00 | Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, Tiergarten, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz