Review: Rachmaninoff Festival I, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

Tuesday, November 17 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, The Isle of the Dead (1908)
Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

This month the New York Philharmonic seeks answer to the question “Just how much Rachmaninoff can one tolerate”.  From the name of this blog, you may surmise that I am a big fan of Rachmaninoff.  Even so, NYPhil’s three-week Rachmaninoff Festival featuring Daniil Trifonov performing Piano Concertos 2 through 4 as well as Rhapsody in Paganini is probably a bit too much of a good thing for the mere mortal.  Now of course, any pianist who can play Rachmaninoff is no mortal, and if nothing else, the young Mr. Trifonov, on his 5th night of playing the the Rach 2/Rhapsody in Paganini double feature, has to be commended for his commitment and stamina.

The concert started with the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, based on Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name.  That I loved Rachmaninoff long before developing general interest in classical music is in large part, I think, because I sensed a tortured soul overshadowed by the composer’s lyrical virtuosity.  Isle of the Dead, however, seems to be an exercise in just the tortured soul part, and honestly nearly 20 minutes of deathly allusions and heavy, heavy strings were 12 minutes too many.

I’m about as familiar with Rach 2 and Rhapsody in Paganini as I am with any piece of music, or at least with a particular recording thereof featuring Nikolai Lugansky, my favorite pianist.  When one is so intimately familiar with a recording, every note played slightly differently is jarring.  When Mr. Lugansky had performed Rhapsody in Paganini with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande earlier this year in Newark, a reviewer had remarked that “against the clarity and bright sonority of the orchestra, Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity.”  I’d say that Trifonov and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru did kind of the opposite: they made Rachmaninoff nearly unrecognizable.  Well, to me anyway.  Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing–I heard details tonight that had escaped me in the hundreds of times before and gained new interpretations that had never occurred to me.  It dawned on me that the two pieces, which I had always taken to be very different, are in fact very similar: a turbulent intro, an ultra romantic (and Romantic) middle section, and a hard-fought salvation.  Not unlike the Divine Comedy.

The performance-specific comments I have, then, are mostly the comments I have about every New York Philharmonic performance: the orchestra was too loud, the brass winds too horrible.  Based on the Youtube videos that I’ve seen of Trifonov as well as his Rach 1 with the NYPhil earlier this year, his performances tend to be very dependent on the quality of the orchestra.  This was especially apparent in the rhapsody, where the principal trombone started jarringly off-pitch, and the soloist’s playing in the first couple of arrangements were quite timid as result.  (For his first encore later in the evening, Trifonov would play a piano arrangement of the Paganini caprice, as if to compensate for the orchestra’s mistake.)  Beyond that, I tend to judge one’s Rachmaninoff chops by how one plays the 18th variation of the rhapsody (like how I judge a Thai restaurant by its pad thai–you could argue that there are meatier selections than such a saccharine sample, but whatever, it’s comfort food), and Trifonov’s 18th variation was soporific.  What I really admire about Nikolai Lugansky and Yujia Wang, two of the best Rachmaninoff interpreters of our time,  other than their impeccable techniques, is that they seem to play somewhat aloofly, and it is precisely this touch of aloofness that exudes emotions.  Trifonov, once again, does the opposite: he plays passionately and kinetically, yet very little of the passion and physicality converted into emotional impact.  If that makes sense.

The Rach 2 went better, thanks in large part to the orchestra’s excellent strings and woodwinds.  I had never realized it before, but for what is probably the best-known pianistic work of the 20th century, most of the melody in the first two movements are actually given to the orchestra.  After some initial disagreement in tempo and intensity between the piano and the orchestra in the first movement, the orchestra settled down nicely in second movement to provide a lush, gentle background for the piano, as if giving back slightly to the soloist.  By the final movement, Trifonov was in charge and putting on a show, striking the piano with perfect accuracy and vigor aplomb.  Not even a moment after the final note, the audience exploded into a standing ovation, and the soloist came back on stage no less than 8 times, a record among concerts I’ve attended (the previous record was 6, held by Yujia Wang after Rach 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the reception for Trifonov is all the more remarkable considering that he was fully clothed).  Hey, everyone, calm down, let’s not wear out our young soloist in one night–he’ll be here all month.


3 thoughts on “Review: Rachmaninoff Festival I, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

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