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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Concert Review: Magic In His Fingers

Daniil Trifonov opens the Philharmonic's Rachmaninoff festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
You gotta say yes to another excess: Daniil Trifonov.
Photo by Dario Acosta for Deutsche Grammophon/UMG 
Although he is just 24, Daniil Trifonov has established himself at the forefront of an impressive crop of pianists, young Steinway jockeys determined to return old-school virtuosity to the concert hall. On Wednesday night, Mr. Trifonov opened a three-week festival stand with the New York Philharmonic. The focus: the music of Russian composer and virtuoso Sergei Rachmaninoff, with three different conductors scheduled to take the podium in David Geffen Hall.


A tall dour man, Rachmaninoff was both blessed and cursed with a profoundly serious attitude toward his art. He built a reputation as the last tonal Russian composer before the rise of the Soviet state, and as a touring virtuoso whose difficult piano concertos were designed for his enormous hands and long, flexible fingers. And yet, while some of his works are legend, others remain mostly silent except for the odd boxed set of complete orchestral works.

For the first of his concert programs, Mr. Trifonov chose the Variations on a Theme of Nicolo Paganini and the Second Piano Concerto, two staples from the composer's repertory for piano and orchestra. The concert opened with The Isle of the Dead, an early tone poem. Conducted by Cristian Măcelaru (in what proved to be a strong Philharmonic debut) it featured a moody atmosphere, taut string playing and the Philharmonic brass thundering out the Dies irae, the medieval chant that shows up repeatedly in Rachmaninoff's works.

Mr. Trifonov took the stage to thunderous applause. He strode to the piano and dove right into the Paganini Variations. Working with the final theme of Paganini's 24 Caprices, the Russian composer put the theme through twenty-four permutations of his own., reworking the thematic material backward and forward and incorporating his old favorite theme the Dies Irae. Although not a proper concerto (and not numbered as one in Rachmaninoff's catalogue) this is one of the composer's most popular works for piano and orchestra.

The Variations fall into eight subsets, with the first eight building in complexity and difficulty. Against the orchestra, Mr. Trifonov hunched, intent over the keyboard. He threw back his shoulders to pound out tarantella rhythms and demonic minor-key passages. The slow variations demonstrated his lyric ability, particularly the famous 18th variation, a hit tune that Rachmaninoff himself drily referred to as "one for my agent." In the final set, Mr. Trifonov demonstrated his unique gifts a combination of smooth legato, speedy fingers and hidden reserves of power within his slender frame.

This is the second of Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos the second most frequently heard in concert after the famously difficult Third. As with Brahms' concertos, it required the soloist to stay in the pocket with the orchestra for much of the expansive opening movement, playing dense figurations and flurries of notes but not breaking out into lyric expression of their own. Mr. Trifonov proved himself a team player, engaging in taut interplay with the orchestra here that never failed to excite.

He sat stiff and taut for the start of the slow movement, his rigid posture belying the lyric lines that flowed smoothly from his fingers. His playing in the last movement (with its famous romantic theme in the cellos) had a celebratory quality, making this demanding music sparkle with life and vitality even as the woodwinds continued to hint at the Dies irae theme. Following tumultuous applause, Mr. Trifonov obliged his public with a thrilling and energetic encore: a transcription (with his own touches added) of the Overture to the Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, a stunning performance with welcome echoes of old-school showmanship.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.