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Trifonov, Exploding Expectations

Remember the time before you had ever heard Rachmaninov's third piano concerto, or maybe any music by Rachmaninov. This was one of the possible reactions listening to Daniil Trifonov play a piece purporting to be Rachmaninov's third concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday night. In the Russian pianist's NSO debut last year, playing Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the feeling was similar, as if Trifonov had jettisoned all the assumptions about the piece, the expectations for how it should be played, searching for something radically different, entirely his own. With his take on the third concerto, too, it was best not to think of how other pianists, even the composer himself, had played the work and just accept it on Trifonov's terms.

Such an interpretation is upsetting to lots of people, especially those who love Rachmaninov's keyboard concertos, a body of listeners that does not include your reviewer, but it is a remarkable gift. This understanding was announced right in the first movement's opening theme, which Trifonov played in an almost disembodied way, showing true independence of mind in directing the orchestra with his hands through the keyboard. As he launched into the more challenging parts of the movement, it was positively wild -- feral -- playing, and guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański and the musicians had to be on their toes, which they mostly were. Even amid overgrown tangles of notes, Trifonov drew out little wisps of themes, much of which went by almost too fast for a listener to understand. The cadenza, with its massive blocks of chords leaping about, was electrifying, a volcanic outburst that evaporated into delicate washes of sound accompanying the return of fragile woodwind solos.

The second movement was marked by a sense of distracted reverie, with the technical challenges again mastered effortlessly, down to the huge booming octave section that provides the transition into the finale. The last movement, no surprise, was taken extremely fast, a little chaotic, possessed, with Trifonov seeming to nip at the heels of the fleeing themes. In response to loud ovations, Trifonov offered yet more strangeness, a poetic, slightly disturbed rendition of the Alla reminiscenza movement from Nikolai Medtner's Mélodies oubliées, op. 38. A bewildered friend initially thought Trifonov might have been improvising, and that was exactly the sense that the performer may have intended, a "forgotten melody" resuscitated, but so fragile it is immediately lost.

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Anne Midgette, Brilliant soloist gives powerful, ambiguous performance (Washington Post, April 3)
The other part of the evening's drama was to have another audition of Krzysztof Urbański, the 30-something music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He made his debut with the ensemble two years ago, but since the announcement that the NSO will be searching for Christoph Eschenbach's successor, one has to consider Urbański as a possible candidate. This time around, my impression of him was much the same: a confident conductor, who did not use a score for the second half's performance of Shostakovich's tenth symphony, but one who is perhaps too emotive for my taste, with a lot of squirming and head lolling, affectations that make one worry he might be missing things along the way.

Urbański's handling of the orchestral introduction of the second movement of the Rachmaninov concerto was undistinguished, but he certainly marshaled implacable crescendi of orchestral force in the Shostakovich, giving the musicians their head to crush the hall with amassed sound. Urbański's choice of excessively fast tempi, in the second and fourth movements, seemed to have the musicians scrambling a bit, and a lack of clarity in the conductor's gestures at times did not help. In spite of the leadership, one might say, the NSO turned in an incendiary performance of this piece, with its obsessive intertwining of the composer's name theme (D-Eflat-C-B, for DSCH) and the name theme of Elmira Nazirova, a student of Shostakovich's, in the third movement. The two themes, so musically mismatched -- the former predominantly half-steps and the latter so quartal and quintal (played here with ideal force and vigor in the French horn) -- are forced together by the score.

This concert repeats this evening.

1 comment:

jfl said...

ionarts mini-interview with Daniil Trifonov here.