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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Concert Review: Underdog Day Afternoon

Week 2 of Rachmaninoff at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The jaywalking virtuoso: Daniil Trifonov on his way to work.
Photo © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
As a composer and touring soloist, Sergei Rachmaninoff was respected for his place as the last of the Russian romantic and loved for his fearsome piano technique. Although he remains one of the most popular composers of the 20th century, some of his vast catalogue remains off the radar of the music-loving public. This week, the New York Philharmonic sought to correct that oversight with the second set of concerts in their ongoing three-week celebration dubbed Rachmaninoff: A Philharmonic Festival.

Friday’s matinee concert was led by Neeme Järvi, the esteemed Estonian conductor who has spent most of his long career championing works that lie outside the standard repertory. These concerts included two works new to the Philharmonic: an orchestral transcription of the Russian Song from Rachmaninoffs conservatory years and the Symphony No. 1. These book-ended the rarely played G minor concerto, with featured festival soloist Daniil Trifonov at the piano.

The Russian Song is part of an album of piano pieces that Rachmaninoff wrote during his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, pieces that are so obscure that they were not published until 1944. Here, the work appeared in a lush orchestration by conductor Arkady Leytush. Its slow, repetitive theme (meant to evoke the straining of two barge-haulers moving their cargo against the elements) sounded like the curtain-raiser for a great lost opera. 

Mr. Järvi and the orchestra were joined by Mr. Trifonov, whose slight frame houses a pianist of considerable artistry and power. The Fourth is the last and least-loved of Rachmaninoff's concertos. It lacks the melodocism of the Second and the bold, edge-of-the-seat virtuosity of the Third. Instead, Rachmaninoff breaks new ground here, assimilating the influences of jazz and French music in a work that forces the pianist to work in lockstep with the accompanying orchestra.

Mr. Trifonov made a bold entry over a surging orchestral theme, establishing his piano as a rhythmic driving agent against commenting, twittering clarinets. And then the dreamy main theme emerges in oboe, clarinet and piano as the work begins to surge forward, with Mr. Trifonov racing through the tricky expository passages as the orchestra gave chase. The central Largo is Rachmaninoff at his most cerebral, working through a broken chromatic chord and using it as the source for a great upwelling of melody. 

The virtuoso fireworks finally showed in the long cadenza at the start of the third movement, the first shots against a war-like tutti that included snare drum, blaring trumpets and taut rhythmic playing from the orchestra. Mr. Järvi urged his forces forward and they responded with enthusiasm. Mr. Trifonov answered in kind, putting a convincing case for this underrated and underappreciated work. He followed with a glittering, quicksilver encore, a small palate-cleanser in between his traversals of these pianistic monuments.

It is hard to believe that this week marked the first Philharmonic performances of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony. This work was reviled at its 1909 premiere, dismissed by critics and the public alike in a fiasco that shook Rachmaninoff's confidence and nearly derailed his career as a composer. But if anyone could bring it to life it was Mr. Järvi. He has made a long career of presenting lesser-known symphonies, composers and opera and preserving them for the posterity of the modern recorded catalogue.

This performance revealed the First to be a big and ambitious work, the product of a young man full of big ideas. Mr. Järvi did an excellent job, showing the thought and structure in the massive outer movements (each composed in two different tempos) and the beauties of the light-footed dance movement and the pensive Largo. The finale, dominated by military trumpets and rattling snare, ended not with a crash of cymbals but with the thunder of bass drum and gong, a modern idea that was clearly ahead of its time.

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