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From Lithuanian With Affection

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
10/11/2023 -  October 12,13,14,2023
Raminta Serksnytė: De Profundis
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto, Op. 54
Jean Sibelius: Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22: 1. “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island”, 2. “The Swan of Tuonela” & 4. “Lemminkäinen’s Return”

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla (Conductor)

M. Grazinytė-Tyla

... Lithuanian nation must be saved, as it is the key to all the riddles–not only philology, but also in history–to solve the puzzle.
Immanuel Kant (From three generations of Lithuanian forebears.)

We are instruments possessed of sensitivity and memory. Our senses are so many keys which are struck by things in nature around us, and often strike themselves. And in my opinion, this is all that happens in a clavichord.
Denis Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream

Why the previous quotes from learned Ancients? Because Robert Schumann was the most learned composer of the 19th Century. Because the two icons who created his music, Florestan and Eusebius, were embodied in all his music, even his one Piano Concerto.

And because these two ideas erupted out of Daniil Trifonov’s fingers through every measure of the Concerto last night.

The word “amazing” is the intuitive adjective used for every Trifonov performance. Only the most small‑minded pedagogue could slight his astounding scales, his clarity, his velocity (when needed) and relaxation (ditto). And frankly is useless for critical purposes.

The Schumann Concerto was special because of the unforced contrasts, the balance between emotion and elation. The first movement had the right, un‑idiosyncratic tempo right up to the final cadenza, where he burst into an explosive amen.

The second movement was played like a Chopin nocturne, leading conductor Mirga Grazinytė‑Tyla and the Phil, pausing when necessary, carrying on the nocturnal phrases right to the last movement. Here, Mr. Trifonov led the Phil a merry chase, but never exceeded obedience to the composer.

What stood out most was his comprehension of the whole work, rejoicing in the tempo and expression for every phrase, not–as many great pianists do–playing it as a finger trait committed to memory.

Outside of this, the evening was devoted to two Lithuanians, both making their Philharmonic debuts.

Conductor Grazinytė‑Tyla has led, conducted and premiered many works of her country, throughout Europe and the United States. Her petite figure, he sharp gestures, her emphases in the right places, showed a mastery of the orchestra, for the most part, and a special treat for Lithuanian composer Raminta Serksnytė, who was in the audience.

R. Serksnytė (© Modestas Ezerskis)

Raminta Serksnytė has written an astonishing number of works from her home in Vilnius. Apparently, though last night’s De Profundis, written as a graduation offering from her conservatory, is still played more frequently than her other works.

De profundis (“Out of the depths”) might have been judged by her teachers as “erratic.” The reality was a 16‑minute work of surprises, sudden changes of mood, from a quiet fluttering opening to a massive string boom (can violins boom? Sure.). From there, De Profundis kept this listener on edge. Several themes, like a simulated bird call, were repeated. But the repetition was outweighed by the changes of radiant colors, of major to minor, velocity to halcyon calm. Ms. Serksnytė’s work was like a strenuous walk through a jagged landscape. Mountains, valleys, meadows and pine trees appearing with breathtaking suddenness.

If this was a student work, we New Yorkers should demand to hear more of Ms. Serksnytė’s work in the future.

For unknown reasons, Ms. Grazinytė‑Tyla programmed only three of the four movements–yes, movements–of Jean Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite. Why he called it a “suite” is unknown. This is a symphony, just as Mahler’s Song of the Earth is a symphony. At any rate, the composer called the piece Four Legends from the Kalevala. Removing the “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” scherzo is not rare (the four works are often separated), but the program’s second half would not have shunned the extra ten minutes.

Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla led the New York Philharmonic with a steady hand. Perhaps too steady. That first four‑horn chord is meant to shock. She made it an introduction to a picture of a picaresque hero. The final movement, “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” should be Sibelius at his most dynamic (or most Lisztian). The piece should give a lunging rush, becoming louder and faster, even at the sacrifice of orchestral clarity.

Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla gave it terrific movement, but sometimes pulled her punches. Yes, the last measures were slam‑bang, yet only the rarest conductors can make the whole movement a steady unending accelerando.

(The audience perhaps didn’t realize that our anti‑hero had been killed and chopped up in the previous movement, and put together by his mother! Such are Finnish legends.)

The most popular poem is “The Swan of Tuonela,” one of the great works for English horn. The Phil’s Ryan Roberts played it with plangent moody beauty. After all, this is not a rhapsody, but a mystery, and the rolling of the drums accented the evil drama.

Still, Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla knew that Sibelius was one of the great 20th Century orchestrators. She had the right orchestra here, and made the most of its always stunning players.

Harry Rolnick



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