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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in C minor op.18 [35:17]
Suite from J S Bach’s Partita for Violin in E major BMV 1006 [8:15]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G minor op.40 [26:35]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. 2015/18, Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5335 [70:17]

Daniil Trifonov is really good. And I mean really good. For a pianist to make Rachmaninov’s C minor concerto sound completely fresh is a considerable achievement – but then this is not the first time I’ve heard Trifonov do this with concertos that have been recorded, or played in concert, many times. His performances of Prokofiev’s First Concerto, for example, have often left me unable to find the words to describe the quality of the playing and the sheer excitement of hearing him play this slight, but brilliant work. Rachmaninov’s Third is another (and that we will get from Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians next year – presumably when they ‘Arrive’ after this album’s ‘Departure’). Perhaps of today’s pianists, in this particular Russian repertoire, the only one I can think of who is just as exciting as Trifonov is Yefim Bronfman: Believe me, if you’ve ever heard Bronfman live you will likely never forget it. (I’m sure other readers will have their own favourites in Rachmaninov or Prokofiev; Trifonov and Bronfman just happen to be mine!)

It isn’t just that Trifonov has such a dazzling technique – it’s the miraculous touch he brings to the keyboard, almost as if the tips of his fingers are covered in velvet. Listen from 7’06 to 9’03 in the Allegro scherzando of the Second and the poetry just sings from the keys. But then about 30 seconds before Trifonov starts that beautifully languid passage, the Philadelphia Orchestra has just spun and woven some of the most breath-taking and silky playing imaginable – and this is partly what is so magical about this particular performance of the C minor. Pianist and orchestra are in a symbiotic, almost harmonic balancing act, responding to each other’s playing with phrasing that complements one another. It is not at all common to hear any performance of this concerto where you feel the pianist is almost in communion with the orchestra – but here you get exactly that.

It’s even more apparent when you listen to the Adagio sostenuto. From 0’54 to 2’13 – in a highly atmospheric passage which Rachmaninov writes largely for the piano and solo flute and clarinet – you just don’t hear the disassociation of the various instruments, which is often the case; what you have in this performance is an intense dialogue happening between Trifonov and the Philadelphia wind principals. But this beauty and transparency is sometimes very deceptive because it often suggests this is a performance which understates elements of the concerto’s virtuosity. Still with the Adagio, you have very contrasting cadenzas from Trifonov – one rather dark and brooding, the other more dramatic and sweeping leading to beautifully controlled left-hand arpeggios and high treble chords.

One of the interesting things about Trifonov’s performance of the C minor concerto is that I found myself thinking it was a better work than it really is. The fugato of the Allegro sostenuto can be problematical in so many performances but Trifonov pulls off something rather extraordinary here. It’s not just the accuracy of his playing – the wonderfully adept alternate-hand chords, for example – there’s also some kind of battle royale happening between the soloist and orchestra which results in a sustained onslaught that is more furious than usual. Trifonov clearly doesn’t see the actual climax of the concerto as rather understated as some pianists have, either – in fact, it’s rather imposing, though don’t read that as ‘slow’. And nor he is over-concerned, as Stephen Hough was, in getting tempos right. There’s no lack of excitement here compared with Hough’s performance (which I never quite warmed to) – and vastly more expressive range.

Trifonov’s performance of Rachmaninov’s G minor concerto is, I think, in an altogether different league. His is the first truly great interpretation by a Russian pianist – and possibly any pianist - for many years – and I think much of that has to do with his ability to understand a couple of important things about this work. The first is, it’s Rachmaninov’s ‘leanest’ composition for piano and orchestra, written in a way to expose the soloist that the other three concertos do not. Secondly, idiomatically, it’s simply the least Russian sounding of the four concertos, especially in the Largo. It’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan work – reflecting the composer’s lifestyle during the 1920s – but as Trifonov suggests “…it’s jazzy, mechanical – almost engine-like – you hear the influence of film music and industry… the harmonies are more risky, the music edgy.”

The Allegro vivace contains some breath-taking playing from both Trifonov and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The simple melody on the cellos at 4’03 (repeated at 4’20) is just the beginning of an intense dialogue but when Trifonov enters with those thundering chords at the poco meno mosso marking (beginning at 4’54), played in duet with magnificent horns and woodwind, the shift in mood is so sudden as to sound existential. Listen to Stephen Hough’s recording in the same passage here (from 4’29) and because he spaces the notes (it actually resembles Morse Code, I think) he isn’t able to suggest, as Trifonov does, that this music attains the quality of motionlessness. The two pianists offer very different interpretations of dynamic markings, too. But what is also exceptional about much of this movement is the quality of Trifonov’s block chords, the effortless pedal control, the spinning arpeggios.

Perhaps it’s the very fact that Trifonov describes the first movement in particular – though this can also be attributed to the brilliance of the final movement, too – “as like a train accelerating down the tracks, and during the piece you see stations and cities… flashing by the window” that inspired the name of the CD in the first place. It’s a vivid description – but I think an insightful one. If the Largo is expressive, almost surreal, the third movement’s Allegro vivace is propelled by some sharply distinctive rhythmic patterns that Trifonov metaphorically relates to the score and keyboard becoming a kind of railway track: tempo meno moso, agitato e sempre accelerandro, presto are all made to sound different, each in their own way reflecting a moving train.

What sets Trifonov’s performance of the G minor concerto – and to this one should add the simply magical playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra – above almost all others is the sheer imagination of it. It’s recorded live (unlike the C minor concerto) though perhaps some might find the recorded balance a little too centred towards the instrument; I didn’t. Orchestral solos, especially in the woodwind, are extremely detailed, luminous even, and Nézet-Séguin is a master at phrasing dialogue. This is entirely evident in performances of both the concertos. It helps that Trifonov has such a clean touch – and that the Philadelphia Orchestra has such a rich sound – both ideal for Rachmaninov and the engineering of this disc reflects that.

I’ve deliberately – apart from making some comparisons with Stephen Hough’s recordings (this being, perhaps, the most acclaimed cycle of recent years) – not made further ones. As good as Trifonov’s C minor is, it’s the G minor on this disc that is of exceptional importance. It might not supplant the recording made by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in 1957, but it can certainly stand beside it.

Marc Bridle



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