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Chopin Evocations
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Sergei Babayan (piano, Rondo only)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. 2016 Rossini-Saal, Regentbau, Bad Kissingen (Rondo), 2017 Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg (solo pieces), Konzerthaus Dortmund (concertos, Fantasie-impromptu)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 7518 [62:18 + 77:43]

Daniil Trifonov has won golden opinions for his collection of Liszt studies (review) and I was greatly taken with a recital of the Rachmaninov Elegiac Trios in which he excelled as a chamber musician (review). The first of these was given the title Transcendental and the second Preghiera, glitzy marketing ploys which may irritate others less than they do me. Now we have a programme which is closer to a concept album, with the title Chopin Evocations, taken from one of the Mompou variations on the second disc.

In fact this is really two programmes mixed up together. In the first place we have the two Chopin concertos, one on each disc and in reverse order, and then there is a mainly solo recital, of which more in a moment. The concertos are given with reorchestrations by the pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev. Many others before him have attempted this, including Tausig, Balakirev, Klindworth and Messager, though none has established itself. I personally think the attempt is well worth making. Pletnev gives slightly more prominence to the winds than did Chopin, and he deliberately uses a chamber orchestra.

However, whatever we think of his skills as an orchestrator, they are vitiated by his sluggish conducting. The sparkling conductor I remember from his recordings of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and the Russian programme Enchanted Kingdom years ago seems to have lost his shine. These are some of the slowest performances I have heard. Moreover he seems to encourage his soloist to caress every phrase and to indulge in excessively languid and mannered phrasing. Trifonov’s touch is quite magical, and in the faster passages his light and joyous dexterity is a joy, but several of the movements fall apart because of this constant tendency to slow down. The two finales come off much better but by then it is too late.

The solo items are another matter. We begin with the Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem’ from Don Giovanni. This was the work which led Schumann to say ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.’ Chopin originally wrote these for piano with orchestra, but here, slightly surprisingly, we have the solo version. As a very early work this does not have the chromatic subtleties with which we associate the mature composer, but rather is in the Hummel-Weber tradition of brilliant pianism. There is a long introduction, then the theme, presented jauntily rather than seductively, as in the opera. The variations begin brilliantly then become more dramatic with an exciting finale ‘alla polacca.’ The work demonstrates Chopin’s supreme command of the keyboard, and indeed that of Trifonov, though it does not begin to compare as a work with Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy which draws on the same theme.

The first disc ends with some small works written as homages to Chopin, all of which have an element of pastiche. First is Schumann’s well-known character sketch from Carnaval, meltingly done. Then come three works which were new to me. Grieg’s Hommage à Chopin is a dark and stormy piece, a fine work which could have been one of Chopin’s preludes or studies. Barber’s Nocturne, actually a homage to John Field rather than to Chopin, begins like one of Chopin’s before heading off in a different direction though with some Chopinesque figuration and spangled decoration. The Tchaikovsky mazurka is a charming piece, quite close to Chopin but subtly different and in fact closer to Chopin’s waltzes than his mazurkas.

The second disc begins with a real rarity, the Rondo for two pianos, a student work which was only published posthumously. In this Trifonov is joined by Sergei Babayan, who Trifonov describes as his mentor and who studied with Pletnev. This is a virtuosic work, beautifully done but frankly it is musically of little interest and really only a curiosity.

The Variations by the Catalan composer Frederic or Federico Mompou are the most substantial solo work here. They are based on the A major prelude, Op. 28 No. 7. Mompou begins by varying the harmonies. The subsequent variations include some in various Chopin styles, including a waltz, a mazurka and a slow variation like the E minor prelude. The variation which gives its title to the whole album is a dreamy number.

Trifonov’s playing of all these is most beguiling, but the best comes at the end. The Fantasie-Impromptu is a wonderfully poetic reading, as poetic as it is virtuosic. How I wish Trifonov had given us more solo Chopin like this!

So as a concept album this breaks into two halves, a disappointing recording of the concertos and a dazzling solo recital. I did wonder whether the original idea had been simply to record the concertos, but that they turned out to be rather too long at these slow tempi for one disc. The obvious coupling would have been the four short concertante works, including the orchestral version of the ‘Là ci darem’ variations,’ but DG have only just given us an excellent recording of these with Jan Lisiecki (review). Hence, possibly, the idea of adding the solo works. However, my theory is rather knocked on its head by the fact that the solo works were actually recorded first. Still, I hope that in due course DG separate the solo works from the concertos and perhaps invite Trifonov to record these again with someone else. (He had already recorded No. 1 in Poland.)

The recordings, in three different venues are excellent. The booklet has lots of pictures but little about the works and virtually nothing about the performers.

Those who follow Trifonov or who want the solo items will not be disappointed. For the concertos I would suggest Argerich with Dutoit or Zimerman’s first recording, the one with Giulini, who manages to make something of the orchestral part. Separately, Pollini’s early recording of No. 1 with Kletzki is as poetic as Trifonov and Ashkenazy’s of No.2 with Zinman is also very fine.

Stephen Barber

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 (1829-1830) [30:51]
Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni in B flat major Op. 2 (1827) (solo version) [17:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval Op. 9 No. 12 (1834-1835) Chopin [1:30]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Moods Op. 73 No. 5 (1873-5) Study ‘Hommage a Chopin’[1:51]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Nocturne (Homage to John Field) (1959) Op. 33 [4:10]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
18 Morceaux for piano, Op. 72 No. 15 (1892) Un poco di Chopin [2:52]
Rondo for two pianos in C major Op. posth. 73 (1828) two piano version with Sergei Babayan [8:46]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 (1830) [42:47]
Frederic MOMPOU (1893-1987)
Variations on a theme by Chopin (1938-1957) [20:33]
Impromptu No 4. in C sharp minor Op. 66 (posth.) ‘Fantasie-Impromptu’ (1834) [5:36]



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