Daniil Trifonov Takes New York

Rachmaninoff: A Philharmonic Festival.

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Cristian Macelaru (conductor), Daniil Trifonov (piano), David Geffen Hall, November 13, 2015.

New York Philharmonic
Photo by Chris Lee

If, according to the New York Times, the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor “took” Carnegie Hall after a single, glowingly reviewed recital, then Daniil Trifonov will have seized the deed and title to David Geffen Hall at the end of his monumental three-week residency with the New York Philharmonic. In the first of four programs dedicated to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff – heard on November 13 – the 24-year old Russian virtuoso demonstrated the poetic imagination, lyrical sensitivity, and mastery of pianistic color that makes him one of the most exciting classical musicians of our day.

The concert opened with Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru, making his Philharmonic debut, leading the orchestra in a muscular performance of Rachmaninoff’s 1909 tone poem, “The Isle of the Dead.” The opening passages sounded murky and rhythmically unsettled, but Macelaru soon sculpted the ebbs and flows of sound and built to powerful, if somewhat blaring, climaxes.

Notwithstanding Trifonov’s reputation as a spontaneous artist who never gives the same performance twice, his interpretation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is now something of a known quantity. He has toured with the work for several years and recently released a superb studio recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

In concert, Trifonov gave a scintillating reading of the Rhapsody that finely balanced poetic sensitivity and visceral excitement. The individual variations were vividly and distinctly characterized, with Trifonov drawing orchestral-like sonorities out of the piano. Runs were darting and playful; the arching lyrical lines lucid and pearlescent; and climaxes fiery and intense. In the 18th variation, Trifonov brought an aching vulnerability to the famous melody before the orchestra swelled up in full-blooded passion. Yet more importantly, Trifonov captured the longer dramatic arc of the work, with a keen sense of contrast and structure and a mature understanding of how one variation leads to the next.

Macelaru, now the conductor-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra, offered crisp, bright accompaniment, though he brought considerably less finesse than his senior colleague Nézet-Séguin does on Trifonov’s studio record. The Philharmonic often sounded like a blunt instrument compared with Trifonov’s precision and clarity.

Unlike the Rhapsody, Trifonov’s interpretation of the Piano Concerto No. 2 still feels like a work in progress. In the opening movement, Trifonov was overpowered by the orchestra and almost completely drowned out at several climaxes. (The radio broadcast on WQXR of the November 12 performance offered a better balanced sound than my vantage point in Row T of the orchestra.) Trifonov’s conception of the slow movement, taken at a very spacious tempo, appeared to be built on a central contrast. The opening theme, dry and understated, took on an almost austere beauty, as Trifonov appeared more concerned with the decay of sound and the silence between notes than sustaining a legato line. Yet when the theme returned at the end of the movement after the piano solo, it was transformed: dreamier, softer-edged, with more use of the pedal. It was an intriguing contrast, but the overall impact of the movement was less certain and diffuse.

Trifonov pressed ahead of Macelaru’s beat at several points in the finale, sounding somewhat helter-skelter in the process. Yet when Trifonov brought a rare, otherworldly beauty to the solo re-statement of the movement’s big theme—making us hear one of Rachmaninoff’s most hackneyed melodies anew—before coming together with the orchestra for a magnificently sweeping conclusion, all was forgiven.

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