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The Russians Were Coming!

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
09/28/2012 -  & September 29, October 2*, 2012

Modest Musorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain (arranged by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov)
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto Nr. 3 in C Major, Opus 26
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Opus 35

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

D. Trifonov (© Courtesy of the Artist)

I wish a photographer had snapped Alan Gilbert one second before launching into Musorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain. Tense, crouched down, knees bent, shoulders back, his baton held like Zeus about to throw a lightning bolt, Maestro Gilbert resembled less a conductor than as 100-yard dash runner just before the opening whistle.

But Mr. Gilbert wasn't running a race, he was-for the third concert in a row-showing the most gorgeous colors extracted from his New York Philharmonic. For his fourth season, he doesn't have to prove anything more about his ensemble (they are in top form), but by programing Stravinsky's Rite the first week, Respighi tone poems the next, and this week doing Scheherazade, Mr. Gilbert isn't displaying an orchestra so much as a series of gorgeous Renaissance tapestries.

The cynosure of all ears this week was the 21-year-old pianist Daniil Trifonov. The last time he was here, he played Tchaikovsky under Gergiev, with an astonishing concept for the entire work, rather than showing his more than considerable chops.

Last night, he still looked remarkably boyish, but when he played, the "boy" turned into a dynamic man, pounding the keys at times, brushing them delicately, his long hair waving, his whole body hunched or jumping back.

His debut for Alan Gilbert was the Prokofiev Third Concerto, much the showpiece (the composer used it to show himself off for an American concert tour), but Mr. Trifonov used his miraculous dexterity for a good cause. His octave runs in the outer movements were as smooth as any violin glissandi, he gave every variation of the second movement a different (almost exaggerated) personality, ending with a most passionate Andante meditativo before the climax.

The moods changed rapidly from scimitar sharp to graceful, to melodic to absolutely fierce. But in all Mr. Trifonov produced a Prokofiev that glittered from beginning to end.

Previously he had played an encore, but without a solo, he still deserved (as he received), the most spontaneous standing applause I had seen.

While Rimsky-Korsakov was represented with only a single work, Scheherazade, he dominated these first three concerts. He had been oracle and mentor to both Stravinsky and Respighi (the first two concerts) and Musorgsky's repairman for Night on the Bare Mountain (for which Mr. Gilbert gave a whiplash excitement, ending with the most miraculous tone-painting of dawn.)

Scheherazade could never be called a "warhorse", for it is rarely played these day, the Phil having last performed it six years ago. But what a luscious piece it is! Written the same year as Strauss's Don Juan, it shares pictorial hints, first-chair challenges and driving forces which were inspired by literary antecedents.

The brass here blazoned out the Grand Vizier theme, followed by Glenn Dicterow's most rhapsodic heroine, and from then on the New York Phil took all the tempests, battles, narratives, rolling and fairy-tale episodes with easy-going lusciousness.

From a personal viewpoint, I had grown to love the Middle East through hearing this music as a child. Living for extended times in those fabled cities of The Thousand and One Nights, my eyes always saw the disappointing realities. But my mind still covers this awful reality, like carpet from Turkestan, with the mythical music. No matter what the horrors are today, Rimsky-Korsakov resurrected the Caliphate and Alan Gilbert sprinkled the music with mythical gold and pearls.

Harry Rolnick



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