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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Concert Review: From Russia, With Flash

Daniil Trifonov returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
West Side story: The pianist Daniil Trifonov at play in New York.
Photo by Dario Acosta for Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics
The pianist Daniil Trifonov is just 23, and stands at the leading edge of a young crop of pianists who are making that most staid of instruments exciting again. On Friday, Jan. 2, Mr. Trifonov joined the New York Philharmonic for the orchestra's first concert of 2015, the second of four performances featuring Sergei Rachmaninoff's fearsome Piano Concerto No. 1.

As the symphonic concert format generally features three works in a program the Rachmaninoff was bookended by two other Russian works. The Capriccio espagnol by Nikolai Rinsky-Korskakov led off the evening, under the baton of conductor Juanjo Mena. Mr. Mena balanced the forces of this complicated work, which crosses Russian romanticism with Spanish musical flavors in five quick movements. Essentially a short concerto for orchestra, this work provided opportunity  for most of the principal players if the Philharmonic to display their talents at a high level.

From the clicking castanets of the percussion section to the complex discourses for woodwinds, brass and solo string players, the Capriccio demonstrates Rimsky's versatility and skill as an orchestrator. It requires the collective virtuosity of the whole orchestra, as almost every principal instrument gets an important solo passage.  As Mr. Mena shifted gears from movement to movement, the Philharmonic players responded with enthusiasm and crisp phrasing. Notable contributions coming from principal bassoon Judith LeClair and current acting concertmaster Sheryl Staples.

Rachmaninoff's first Piano Concerto maked the end of his student days, but was met with a profoundly negative reception at its first performance. Undaunted, the composer revised and restructured the work 25 years later. However, it remains a curiosity, eclipsed by the far more popular Second and Third Concertos. Like all of this composer's concert works, it asks for fearsome technique and an enormous range of motion from the soloist.

In this performance, Mr. Trifonov used a combination of speed and power to meet the challenges posed by Rachmaninoff's wide keyboard stretch. His long, delicate fingers blurred through the  first movement,  blending smoothly with the orchestra in key passages and rising above the texture in the elaborate cadenzas. Hunched over the keyboard, Mr. Trifonov focused on the microcosmic dance of this fingers before throwing back his shoulders to drive chords with considerable force.

The expansive second movement allowed pianist and conductor to  elaborate on the romantic themes of the first movement and showing Rachmaninoff's more poetic side. The thrilling finale was led off by Mr. Trifonov, a performance of power and precision that featured dizzying fingerwork and precise, rhythmically driven notes. For an encore, the young Russian offered Debussy's prelude "Reflets dans l’Eau", performed with a steady rhythmic drive and a relaxed, almost jazzy ease.

There's nothing relaxed about Tchaikovsky's final orchestral work: the Symphony No. 6. Known as the Pathetique, this symphony is set to a cryptic program which was never specified by its creator. Its mystery is enhanced by the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died a week after its premiere, taking the work's final secrets with him.

The Philharmonic played the four movements with brisk energy and crisp power, with Mr. Mena drawing taut ensemble playing in the expansive opening movement and the odd and ungainly dance movement that followed. The powerful, determined march movement featured truly impressive playing from the Philharmonic brass, setting the stage for the final crie de couer. If this performance had a flaw it was in this troubled finale, which lacked the last degree of pathos that is needed for this tragic finale.

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