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The Pianist Who Can Do No Wrong

New York
David Geffen Hall & 92nd Street Y
11/27/2019 -  & November 29, 30*, December 1*, 2019
David Geffen Hall, November, 27, 29 & 30*, 2019
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, op. 20
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

92nd Street Y, December 1, 2019
Daniil Trifonov: Quintetto Concertante (New York Premiere)
Daniil Trifonov (piano), New York Philharmonic String Quartet: Frank Huang, Sheryl Staples (violins), Cynthia Phelps (viola), Carter Brey (cello)

F. Huang, S. Staples, D. Trifonov, C. Brey, C. Phelps (© Chris Lee)

Soviet born pianist Daniil Trifonov is no stranger at the NY Philharmonic: he has performed regularly with the orchestra since 2013, and for the 2019-2020 season he was chosen as Artist in Residence and scheduled to perform several times with both the orchestra and the NY Philharmonic String Quartet. His latest turn came with just such a double duty: first as a soloist with the orchestra, then, over the following weekend, as a chamber musician with the quartet. If that were not enough, the work he chose for his performance with the quartet at the 92nd Street Y on December 1, 2019 was the NY premiere of his own Quintetto Concertante.

In his first concert, Trifonov performed the rarely heard Piano Concerto of Alexander Scriabin with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by its music director Jaap van Zweden. The last time the orchestra programmed this work was in 2012 with Evgeni Kissin as soloist. The concerto received only one other NY performance, in 1973, by Vladimir Ashkenazy – yet another Russian émigré. It seems obvious that the work has neither been getting much mileage nor is being performed by pianists other than Russians, who seem to hold this early Scriabin composition in higher esteem than the majority of their colleagues. But even the plausible excuse of nationalistic loyalty does not seem the have been universally applicable. When the concerto was published in 1898, and after Scriabin had subsequently corrected his earlier blunders in orchestration which that great composer and arbiter-of-taste Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov still referred to the score as a “piece of filth”. Wow! Is it really that bad?

If we compare this Scriabin earliest venture into the orchestral world with Rachmaninov works from the same period, it doesn’t stand up very well technically. Rachmaninov’s First Concerto is more dramatic, virtuosic and better-constructed (Rachmaninov was Scriabin’s colleague at the Conservatory, and his First Concerto was modeled after Tchaikovsky’s, not the worst standard...). However, with all the reservations that Rimsky-Korsakov expressed so pungently, there are still some impressive moments in the early Scriabin work. The piece opens in a wistful, Romantic manner, and the piano not so much enters the narration as it sneaks in. The character of the first movement, with its unending ornamental Chopinesque figurations, runs, and filigreed cascades very much recalls other early Scriabin piano pieces, and perhaps more than anything else, his Second Piano Sonata, where the main theme is interlaced with elaborate figurations. Here, in the Piano Concerto, the solo instrument interacts nicely with the French horn and then for the duration of the movement the orchestra takes a leading role rather than accompanying. Thus, on one hand we hear some refined textures and interacting instruments, but on the other hand there remains a sense of inexperience with building a large, cohesive musical form such as a piano concerto. The first movement is not only surprisingly brief, but also comes to a surprise end as if Scriabin suddenly decided: “OK, I had enough with this one, now I have two more movements to take care of.”

Trifonov showed his customary skills as a pianist: a nice, limpid touch, warm sound and the ability to negotiate those lacy arabesques with seeming effortlessness. In the manner of chamber music he gracefully interacted with the musicians of the orchestra, something that would have been a much harder task with a lesser ensemble.

The second movement Andante, in the form of theme and variations, opens with a lovely clarinet solo statement of the theme, which the piano later joins, followed by five well defined, characteristic variations. These are also composed in early-Scriabin style, and as such their model could be any of Tchaikovsky ballet scores. To these ears it is by far the most memorable and compelling music of the 27 minutes-long score. The Finale (Allegro moderato) features something that one could call “an almost-full-theme”: romantic, full-blooded and ardent; but again, as in the first movement, going nowhere. Here Scriabin offers the opportunity for piano concerto virtuosity, with some moments that one could almost mistake for his other classmate and colleague, Rachmaninov. In this movement there was the most visible and effective collaboration and unity between the ever-flamboyant pianist and the engaged, inspired orchestra and their conductor. During the press interview our pianist commented that in the Scriabin Piano Concerto it is not easy to coordinate the rhythmically flexible piano part with the orchestra accompaniment. In Jaap van Zweden he found a capable and sympathetic partner, and some of the solo parts in the orchestra sounded splendidly.

On November 30, the encore – as in the previous two performances on November 27 and 29 – was yet another Scriabin Etude, this time the most dramatic of the Etudes op. 8, No. 12 in D Sharp Minor, which received an exhilarating, yet rather poorly controlled and almost desperate performance, which was nevertheless ecstatically received by the adoring audience. It almost needs no mention that the house was sold-out as it frequently happens when Mr. Trifonov plays in New York.

The next day, on Sunday December 1, Mr. Trifonov played his own piano quintet with colleagues from the New York Philharmonic. It is wonderful that this great orchestra has established its own string quartet, consisting of the first desk players (violinists Frank Huang and Sheryl Staples, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Carter Brey) and they partnered the composer at the piano with aplomb. After Trifonov’s Piano Concerto was introduced to New York at Carnegie Hall two seasons ago, one would also expect his piano quintet to be written in a “Trif-maninovian” manner, but such was not the case.

His nearly half-hour long, four movement work is much grittier, acerbic, even caustic, although still with audible echoes of past masters. The very title “Concertante” brings to mind symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, or later, Szymanowski, which are all de facto concertos for solo instrument(s) and orchestra. I was not quite sure what Trifonov had in mind using this moniker since neither the virtuosity of piano part nor of the strings exceeds that demanded by the quintets of Brahms or Franck. The piece starts in a gloomy mood with a rather ominous Grave, in which its string lines bring to mind some of later works by Shostakovich. Then the mood lightens, and we hear the interplay of piano chords or arpeggiated chords in a dialogue with strings. The thematic material utilized by Trifonov again brings to mind Shostakovich, in this case the Second Piano Trio, with its motivic modifications such as augmentation and diminution. The temperature of the movement gradually rises as the music intensifies. The end of the Grave is very effective, juxtaposing a lamenting chorale of strings and angry outbursts of piano that slowly die out, and again the echo of Shostakovich rings in the concluding high register trills of the piano.

The second movement, an Allegretto scherzando in triple meter, could possibly be based on the Scherzo movement of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, but its sarcastic style brings to mind not so much Shostakovich as some elements found in Kurt Weill or Erwin Schulhoff: very effective stop and go, and charming character. Although only some three minutes long, it is possibly the best movement of the four.

The third movement Larghetto starts in a late-Romantic or even expressionistic style with lyrical lines in the strings and lush, rich, dense harmonies from the piano. For most of the time the piano has a subsidiary role to the strings’ weaving chromaticism. The climate of sadness in this music could have come from the obvious Russian sources, but equally from early Schoenberg or Bartók. The Larghetto leads without a break into the finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, which abruptly starts with a motoric motion a little akin to Prokofiev (echoes of Toccata op. 11?) and even employs some percussive effects in the strings. Sudden pauses heighten the tension, and give the music a heated, fuming character. Then, equally suddenly, everything comes to an abrupt end and another mournful theme appears, with violin floating over the high register accompaniment of piano, an effect that could easily be mistaken for Shostakovich. The last galloping segment of the finale, unambiguously brings to mind the finale of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, which of course plays a large part in Mr. Trifonov’s repertory. To say than he is quoting his great predecessor would be an understatement. Yet after all that excitement we come again to a sudden change of mood that switches to somber and somewhat melodramatic. What at first sounds like it’s building a gigantic climax of the same kind as Mussorgsky Pictures changes to something much more akin to a fairy tale, taken almost verbatim from the last line of Prokofiev’s Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano. Although Mr. T.’s ambitious Quintet has its effective moments, the work overall seems to be an eclectic pastiche of Russian and Eastern European musical techniques and Zeitgeist.

Well, they say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and to that one can also add another apt cliché that if you utilize someone else works as your model, they’d better be good models. To be sure, in that respect our composer didn’t err. Even if my description of the work may be taken as one great put-down and a search-for-familiar-tunes, the Quintetto is still an attractive composition, well-written for strings and piano, and when we take into account the paucity of such compositions in the chamber music repertory it should most likely find some eager performers attracted not only by the accessible idiom but also by the name of a pianist-composer who right now, in the collective minds of concert presenters and audiences, seems to be unable to do anything wrong.

Roman Markowicz



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