Exquisite Economy: A Recital by Kenny Broberg

With a spellbound audience still in thrall, Kenny Broberg raised his hands away from the keyboard, Sunday afternoon, January 21 at Le Petit Trianon, having just executed a titanic rendition of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor that immediately garnered a paroxysm of praise. Mr. Broberg appeared under the auspices of the Steinway Society the Bay Area in music by Franck, Bach, Debussy, and Liszt, in which each selection demonstrated the structural economy of imaginative materials, deftly transfigured into brilliant keyboard vehicles.

Broberg opened with Harold Bauer’s 1910 transcription of Cesar Franck’s finely chiseled organ piece, Prelude, Fugue and Variation (1862), which Franck dedicated to another skilled organist, Camille Saint-Saens. The piece opens with a graceful simplicity in Franck’s favorite B Minor, with a tender, flowing melody not far from Bach’s Liebster Jesuwir sind hier. The pattern that ensues involves askew five-bar phrases, each rounded out in the manner Schumann employs to achieve “classical” architecture. Before the three-voice Fugue section opens, it, too, has a brief prelude. The Variation part simply reintroduces the opening motif accompanied by fast-moving figures. Broberg made the work eminently clear, polished, and refined, his pedal a model of graduated dynamics.

In the same polyphonic spirit, Broberg next performed J.S. Bach’s Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911 (C. 1705), a work that splices the North German style of Buxtehude with Bach’s own sense of improvisation. The opening flourish derives from the natural minor scale. Here, Broberg had to execute brilliant runs, scales, and arpeggios that hurtle into one another in a continuous stream of invention, culminating in a dance-figure that, too, provides contrapuntal delights. The basic structure – fantasy, adagio and fugue – makes the usual, bravura demands on Broberg, typical of any Bach “touch piece.” Broberg managed considerable intensity in his rendition, which may have served as a preliminary exercise for his later Liszt Sonata.

The mood transfigured into something ingenuous with Broberg’s playing Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite (1908), conceived affectionately for the composer’s daughter Claude-Emma, “Chou-Chou.” A combination of learned pedagogy and charming satire, the piece has its own set of challenges, particularly in dynamics, cross-rhythms, and pregnant spaces between notes. Broberg took the opening Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a true toccata that nods to Muzio Clementi, Broberg’s attacks quickly clean and his articulation clear. Jimbo’s Lullaby refers to P.T. Barnum’s main attraction, the elephant Jumbo. A sweetly smooth pentatonic scale proffered the “Serenade of the Doll,” a porcelain toy that must have much appealed to Debussy’s daughter.  Pearl of sound intoned “The Snow is Dancing,” little eddies of swirling lightness. “The Little Shepherd” unites Debussy’s sense of Massenet’s melodic gift with his own restatement of plainchant, here in the form of a flute. Finally, a concession to early Jazz and Ragtime, with “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” a tribute to a minstrel, black-face doll in Claude Emma’s collection. The jerky rhythm and percussive accents – too much so, this afternoon, for some auditors – suddenly collapses into a direct quote of the Tristan chord, perhaps a gentle slap at over-romanticizing the import of such childhood trifles.

The grand culmination of Broberg’s recital came to fruition in his performance of the Sonata in B Minor (1853) by Franz Liszt, which remains, in itself, an epic of Romantic pianism. Following Schubert’s example – in the “Wanderer” Fantasy – Liszt creates a one-movement poem that sub-divides into four distinct sections, based on five, interlocking themes. Typical of the composer, the music projects a monumental dualism or struggle between huge, declamatory – even angry – periods and soft, tender ecstasies, what Blake would call “the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Through-composed, the music gathers its opening descent from the repeated G’s and applies Liszt’s favorite device, which he labeled “transformation of theme.” Broberg maintained a cool but impassioned reserve and restraint when required, but he did not stint on passion, and much of his velocity and dazzling counterpoint achieved an apocalyptic effect. Of course, the music never quite “rests” in any one emotional guise, but like its musical successors, Tristan and Verklaerte Nacht, it keeps urging its emotional progress by way of impulsive, harmonic labyrinths and dramatic lacunae. Broberg subsumed the meanderings and emotional rigors of this otherwise untidy piece with a sure vision of its structure, never relinquishing its affective, cumulative power. The one expletive “Wow!” must suffice.

One encore ensured by universal request: Chopin’s knotty Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59, No. 3. A Polish dance, an oberek, it provided Broberg a lovely gem in polyphonic and agogic motion, rich with the late harmonies that define Chopin’s mature style. Once more, even in this ripe miniature, Broberg mesmerized us with his natural, honest virtuosity.

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