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D. Trifonov & Friends

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/25/2018 -  & April 26*, 2018

April 25
Fryderyk Chopin: Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2 (arr. Andrei Pushkarev) – Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 8 (*) – Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 (arr. Victor Kissine) – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 (arr. Yevgeny Sharlat)
Daniil Trifonov (piano), Gidon Kremer (violin), Gautier Capuçon, Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė (*) (cello)
Kremerata Baltica

April 26
Fryderyk Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3 – Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor, Op. 65 – Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2 (arr. Victor Kissine) – Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 (arr. Yevgeny Sharlat)
Gautier Capuçon (cello), Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Kremerata Baltica

D. Trifonov & Kremerata Baltica (© Stephanie Berger)

Carnegie Hall invested in a 27 year old Russian pianist and offered him the unprecedented gift of curating a seven-concert series called Perspectives. The last segment of that series took place in late April and early May. In the two April performances Trifonov and his illustrious colleagues presented works by Chopin, several of which were already recorded by the Deutsche Gramophone Chopin “Evocations”, albeit this time both of the piano concertos received their Carnegie Hall premieres in the new ultra-streamlined “orchestration” by Yevgeni Sharlat, who eschewed the original contribution of winds and substituted the traditional, if flawed, orchestration with just strings and timpani. Of that I can only say it is cheaper to have only strings, but just as with cheap food, it rarely is better. Thus my plea: will all the prospective innovators do us a favor and stay away from Chopin’s original score, even if they consider it imperfect? Thus far the original is still much better than what we were forced to endure during those two evenings at Carnegie Hall. A little moratorium, perhaps?

On paper both all-Chopin programs looked attractive and intriguing, even more so with the promise of two leading string players, Kremer and Capuçon, for extra luster, extra expectations. The reality, as we learned, was something else.

Overall the biggest question was how our “noodle-fingered” soloist – and my moniker is used only to describe his level of relaxation and ease at the keyboard – was going to handle this gargantuan task of performing so much music over two evenings. At least for now he seems able to do almost anything, learn any amount of repertory and perform it on a day’s notice and he does it with almost no visible force or effort.

These features on occasion produce adverse results when fluidity and speed are substituted for clarity. Often what reached the further regions of this large auditorium was a sense of blur. I always question pianists who bother to perform the Variations with the accompaniment of an ensemble, as it really adds very little to the whole and reveals in the brief interludes the lack of experience and flamboyance of its youthful composer. In the opening Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Mr. Trifonov seemed hardly able to control his nimble fingers, and this produced a rushed, hectic effect, especially in the finale alla Polacca. There was a nice sound and nice handling of fiorituras, a crazy-fast treatment of the 2nd Variation and impressive jumps in Variation No. 4. But I missed the presence of the left hand in other variations, another characteristic and a salient feature of those two evenings. The finale was also taken much faster than Mr. Trifonov demonstrated in his earlier version both in the recording studio and live.

The next piece on the program was another example of juvenilia, though one should use this term in deference to Chopin’s enormous abilities even at the age of 19, when he penned his Trio in G Minor, his only attempt in this genre. As in many others of his early works, here in the piano writing we can already recognize some ground-breaking features that would lead to his future greatness, and there are some of those inimitable contemplative, longing melodies that would make the mature Robert Schumann proud. The piano, needless to say, dominates the proceedings. Unlike Beethoven’s Trio in B flat (called the Archduke), which Chopin loved so much and knew well, the string instruments don’t have much to say. All in all it was a commendable performance by players who chose Carnegie Hall to try it out for the first time. Call it courage! Yet they are all seasoned professionals and they delivered. In that performance as a whole I would have to single out the cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, who delivered her lines with unusual strength and projected with confidence and a beautiful sound. In most traditional performances of the Chopin Trio, the cello has the least important role. It was a welcome surprise that here the cello part found such an excellent and passionate player as Ms. Dirvanauskaitė.

But the leading instrument in this work is still the piano and on the one hand one could admire the fleetness of Trifonov’s fingers, while on the other, sometimes missing a sense of grace, repose, and breathing time. This was especially bothersome in the first movement, when the coda sounded like one big blur. The dance-like second movement Scherzo, in which mazurka and landler are married, was more successful. I especially liked the third movement, an operatic Adagio where the violin and cello lead a beautiful duet like two bel canto singers, soon joined by the piano. There we heard the most ardent sound from both Mr. Kremer and Mr. Trifonov, whose piano sang nicely. It was also a pleasure to hear the old-fashioned violin sound that Mr. Kremer seems often to eschew nowadays.

The dancing theme of the Finale reappears throughout the movement and here the strings play around with the modest material while the piano goes around in endless figurations that will eventually find their way into his piano concertos. It is possible that the premature accelerando at the end of the Finale was impelled by the impatience of players who felt that there’s not much they can do with this naïve music. I guess the way Chopin treats the Finale’s motivic development in the string parts doesn’t belong to his most inspired pages. Thus, although it was easy to criticize a certain sense of monotony, one realized that there’s not much really can be done with this noble piece of juvenilia.

Mr. Trifonov revisited Chopin’s chamber music the next evening when back to back he presented both a charming trifle and a mature work for cello and piano. The trifle was the youthful Introduction and Polonaise in C, written for the daughter of a Polish aristocrat, an amateur cellist. Chopin himself realized that there’s not much there except tons of fast notes for piano and some pleasant tunes for cello. The Introduction, added later, allows the cello to exchange ideas with the piano and that part shows already Chopin’s great potential as bel canto composer. It is perhaps not a job of a reviewer to advise performers what work to play let alone which edition to use, but sometimes it happens that a reviewer also performs. It astounds me that regarding this particular work there is a huge discrepancy between the editions the American and European cellists use. In the U.S. the most common version of that Introduction and Polonaise is one by the great Polish cellist Emanuel Feuermann (further edited by Leonard Rose) and in that edition, the cello takes over some virtuoso writing and frills from the piano part. That makes the piece much more interesting and effective than the original version, performed in Europe, with an undemanding cello part and the piano running all-over the keyboard. That being said both players got the utmost from the score and Trifonov’s fast fingers were an asset.

Sonata in G Minor is one of the very last works Chopin has ever written and it is considered one of the most matured. It was written with a significant assistance of composer’s cellist-friend August Franchomme with whom he also once performed the last three movements. Hearing the beautiful, almost booming sound coming from Mr. Capuçon’s cello one was fleetingly convinced that it indeed is a sonata for Cello and Piano. Though the piano part is at the very least equal to that of cello, the string instrument quite frequently carries the tune while the piano, with its quite complicated writing, seems to be relegated to accompanying cello. Capuçon is undisputed master of his instrument and frankly there are a very few cellists before the public who play their instrument more beautifully. He played the sonata with an extraordinary musicality, zest and rich dose of freedom. Now, when we talk about the freedom there is always that nagging question: is it still a musicality or we have already crossed a line into indulgence? Should our rich imagination bend sometimes to the demands of composer’s markings and to what he indicated and wrote in the score? In this sonata both of performers indulged in their “sense of freedom”: it was demonstrated mostly by unsteadiness of the pulse, unvarying use of accelerando and then sudden slowing down which after a while stopped being convincing. The second movement Scherzo, instead of having a feeling of mazurka, came only to that mood with the repeat. The Finale was perhaps even exciting but so much detail was lost due to a rather swift tempo and often the results felt as half-baked. It was mostly gloss, rarely a substance. When the final coda with the tempo indication “più mosso al fine” appeared, it all again turned into a blur.

Because Mr. Capuçon has such a deep, rich, penetrating sound which almost drowned the piano, Mr. Trifonov’s lack of projection was even more jarring. He is, alas, a typical right-handed pianist who has simply no desire, no need for exposing the bass-line of the piano, for illuminating left hand details, for showing harmony that otherwise disappears. Of course my complaint could be addressed toward many other pianists, and often it is. However in case of Mr. Trifonov, we are talking about an artist who is considered by many as a leading pianist of his generation and a musician who can do no wrong. Worse yet, he is also a composer and for someone like that to eschew any aspiration, need to shed light on an important part of the structure is almost unforgivable.

Each of the two evenings after the intermission came a novelty: on April 25, it was a piano Mazurka transcribed for violin and strings. Chopin music was frequently transcribed in the 19th and early 20th century by violin virtuosos, yet this melancholic, heartrending, gloomy mazurka doesn’t lend itself too easily to be removed from the piano idiom. It gave Mr. Kremer a chance to play something solo, but I would think of a several better suited works. Nice try though, Mr. Kissine... We heard a similar attempt by Mr. Kissine at the second concert April 26, when the orchestra played a transcription of the Nocturne in E Major and that effort was much better: I would even say that in my concert-going experience it might have been about the best attempt at arranging piano work of Chopin for a different combination of instruments. Chopin, as we know, loved Bach, yet whereas one can transcribe almost any of Bach works to almost any combination of instruments, the same can’t be said about Chopin and his works rarely sound convincing when taken out of their natural habitat.

As for Mr. Trifonov’s treatment of the piano parts in the concertos it was quite similar for both of them: a great sense of fluidity, a fluency, if only superficial, an ease of execution of the virtuoso figurations that go arm in arm with the same inexplicable rushing or curbing the tempo. I am especially upset when I am confronted with musicians who fall into a musical trap of slowing down the pulse of music, when the composer already slows it for them. In previous encounters with Mr. Trifonov, I discovered that annoying feature which probably some fellow musician that he respects could point out to him and quickly correct. In the first of the performed concertos, in E Minor, it was jarring to hear the second theme slowed down to a crawl. One interesting detail, to compensate for sadly modest orchestration, was the last lines, in original played by the orchestra, here were given to piano: not a bad effect! And if anyone asked how the notorious horn did solo went, the one just before the coda in the finale of the F minor concerto, the answer is: the cello nailed it!

I suppose Carnegie Hall’s gambit paid off, for Trifonov draws crowds, elicits standing ovations and generally speaking “delivers”: he is prodigiously gifted, plays his instrument extremely well, and learns any amount of repertory in no time. Thus far he seemed to be an instinctive player and some repertory suits him very well. What this reviewer would wish for is a little time for Mr. Trifonov to ponder over a meaning of music: perhaps a fewer works performed, and those that played, a little better digested?

In the end we were left with a mixture of admiration for a display of phenomenal talent that we witness when Mr. Trifonov is performing and a worry that perhaps he is also spreading himself too thin, that performing such amount of repertory in a short time may take toll, that perhaps there’s not enough time to process and absorb it all.

And those words were written before the last of Mr. Trifonov’s “Perspective” presentations “Decades” during which he was to present a gargantuan recital devoted to seminal works of the last century, when one work of each decade was to be performed and not easy ones either. Maybe Martha Argerich, one of the most ardent admirers of this young Russian, was right saying already some years ago” this boy can do anything on the piano”...

Roman Markowicz



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