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Trifonov's Debut with the NSO

available at Amazon
Chopin, Grande valse brillante (inter alia), D. Trifonov

(Decca, 2013)
Daniil Trifonov gave an electrifying recital a year ago at the Kennedy Center. His debut with the National Symphony Orchestra, heard on Thursday night, was therefore high on my list for the month. It was not his first concerto performance in the area, which was during a visit with the Mariinsky Orchestra in 2011. (Nor will it be his last -- the NSO already announced that Trifonov will be a featured soloist next season.) While that Mariinsky performance, of Tchaikovsky's first concerto, was all about force and pyrotechnics, this one showed a piece that is just as familiar, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, from its most eclectic and sometimes downright bizarre side.

From the start, where the solo part is quite minimalistic, Trifonov gave every nuance a dramatic cast, delighting in each accent or shift of tempo and applying a careful touch. Much of the piece was hardly more than a whisper of air over the keyboard, murmurs and half-thought ideas, from the devilish syncopations to the broad Romantic gestures. The piece is actually just about as strange as Trifonov played it, a series of character pieces leading up to the famous Variation XVIII, the only moment where this Rachmaninov sounds like everyone's favorite Rachmaninov (and my least favorite one). Trifonov set up those three well-known minutes by drawing back the preceding variation almost entirely into itself and keeping its outburst of passion contained as long as he could.

Other Articles:

Katherine Boyle, Ailing Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos cancels NSO performance (Washington Post, March 16)

Philip Kennicott, Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos finishes concert despite apparent health issue (Washington Post, March 15)

Robert Battey, Ankush Kumar Bahl leads NSO performance well after Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos takes ill (Washington Post, March 17)

---, Conductor Frühbeck de Burgos inspires NSO musicians (Washington Post, March 14)

Anne Midgette, Daniil Trifonov: A pianist ahead of his time (Washington Post, March 8)
Although it may have been odd in many ways, an experimental half-success, it was still extraordinary playing. At each shift of tempo, it seemed to be Trifonov who was pacing the orchestra, rather than the evening's guest conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The Spaniard is a regular with the NSO, last reviewed in 2006 and 2011, and a favorite with the musicians because he was formerly the group's Principal Guest Conductor in the 1980s. Since his last appearance on the podium, he has become much more frail and thin than I recall him, and this seemed to impact his conducting -- although likely not his connection with the musicians in rehearsal. Due to a personal issue, I was able to hear only the first half of this concert, which began with a pleasant enough but generally unremarkable rendition of the first two nocturnes by Claude Debussy, pastel-delicate (Nuages) and bubbly (Fêtes) but ultimately still plain. By contrast, Trifonov's single encore -- Chopin's Grande valse brillante (op. 18, E-flat major), the same he played with the Mariinsky in 2011 -- was a quirky bag of tricks, which perhaps not did all add up to something coherent but never failed to entertain.

The NSO's Strauss anniversary observation concludes next week, with soprano Iréne Theorin and bass-baritone John Relyea (March 20 to 22).

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