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

Saturday, November 28 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)
Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances (1940)

Hey, it’s rachthree’s first Rach 3!  Needless to say, a special occasion.  It’s also my third time hearing–or trying to hear–Rach 3 in person.  The first time was in Philadelphia with Denis Matsuev as soloist, where after a stunning first movement, I, along with dozens of other student ticket holders, were kicked out to accommodate late-arrivals who held full-priced tickets to the seats.  This prompted a long and angry email by yours truly to the Philadelphia Orchestra management, who actually wrote back and promised to improve the eZseatU program to avoid such situations in the future.  Fastforward a year, indeed nobody was kicked out of Yujia Wang’s Rach 3, though having just flown back on a red eye from the West Coast, not to mention being at once repulsed by the pianist’s attire and jealous of her talent, I barely processed any of the performance.  Third time is supposed to be the charm, and I almost passed on these performances of Daniil Trifonov with the New York Philharmonic because I wanted my first good Rach 3 to be special–nothing against the uber-talented Trifonov, but the thought of NYPhil’s brass section made me cringe.  All concerts in the series had been sold out by early this week, but mere hours before tonight’s performance a cheap 4th-tier ticket became available, which I took as a sign and went ahead.

Rach 3 is my favorite piano concerto.  It is also one of the few pieces of music whose emotions, or at least emotional impact on me, is primarily derived from its rhythm instead of melody.  I’m referring mostly to the first-movement cadenza and the last 30 seconds of the second movement plus the entire third movement.  Compared to Rach 2, which is widely considered to be more expressive and lyrical, Rach 3’s appeal, though just as evident, is more difficult to capture and explain.  To me personally, Rach 2 is about love, whereas Rach 3 is about life and rebirth.  In particular, the first note of the third movement, which the end of the second movement flows directly into without rest, is that moment of resurrection.  It is absolutely essential that the pianist and the orchestra time the note perfectly.  For this alone, Olga Kern’s performance in the 2001 Van Cliburn competition will always be the trademark performance of the piece for me.  This is actually somewhat ironic, as I typically prefer Rachmaninoff to be played aloofly, since the music is so demanding already of both the performers and the listeners.  It’s like they say how runway models shouldn’t be too striking, lest that were to distract from the clothes that they are modeling.  Besides, it must take great restraint to not be emotionally bound by the music; it’s often difficult for me to remain composed just listening to it.  Olga Kern was certainly on the fiery side, but her youth and passion, combined with impeccable timing (which is probably more a tribute to the conductor James Conlon), made for a sensational performance.

I can’t be too critical of Daniil Trifonov–after all, anyone who can bang out Rach 3 is super human in my eye–but whereas Ms. Kern’s Van Cliburn performance lived the journey and the likes of Nikolai Lugansky skillfully narrate the journey, Trifonov’s playing felt like a talented and well-meaning kid trying very hard at the former, but, being 24 years old and probably exhausted from playing Rachmaninoff for a month straight, was burnt out by the beginning of the third movement and didn’t quite yet have the experience to pull off the latter.  The first movement cadenza was played with wayyyy too much pedal, which perhaps the young soloist thought would add depth to his playing.  But outside of that Van Cliburn concert, the magic of which even Ms. Kern herself hasn’t been able to replicate since, Rach 3 is best played clearly and from a distance.  The listener should be the one who is put through the gauntlet of emotions, not the pianist.  The pivotal transition from the second movement to the third was well done, but instead of building up to the multiple climaxes of the final movement, Trifonov seemed tentative and worn out, physically and mentally.  Who can blame him, after playing some of the most taxing works ever written for the piano in his 12th concert in three weeks.  It also didn’t help that the orchestra’s brass winds were even worse than usual, loudly playing off pitch like spoiled children arguing with the piano.  Look, Mr. Trifonov has a bright future ahead of him.  His Rach 3 has improved tremendously from an earlier Youtube video.  The same cannot be said of the brass wind musicians of the New York Philharmonic.  Seriously, this has to be the weakest brass section of any major orchestra.

Just as well, then, that the orchestra closed the Rachmaninoff Festival with the composer’s final large-scale work, the Symphonic Dances, which tolerates, at times even encourages, clumsy loudness from the brass.  (So long as the strings hold up; it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, after all.)  As Rachmaninoff had lived in the US for over two decades by 1940, Symphonic Dances is an unsubtle combination of American and Russian elements of music.  Here I say combination, not blend, because the components remain rather distinct in the result.  The opening theme sounds like something that could be heard at any high school football game, and who knows, maybe it is played by marching bands.  Then there is a rather long saxophone solo.  Saxophone!  The quintessential jazz, and therefore by extension, American instrument.  The waltz-rhythmed second movement, however, is distinctly Russian in sound.  Perhaps sensing his own mortality, in the final movement the composer quotes both the Russian Orthodox liturgical chants and the Dies Irae of the Catholic Mass for the Dead.  A thoughtful callback to the very first piece played in this marathon festival, the Isle of the Dead.  One senses that, to Rachmaninoff, death was not the enemy, only the denouement of a tormented life, and as these concerts remind us, torment is, if not good for the soul, good for the soul of the posterity.  The Rachmaninoff Festival may be over, but I look forward to hearing Rachmaninoff again and again and again in the years to come, perhaps some of them with Mr. Trifonov once more at the piano.
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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.
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