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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Destination Rachmaninov · Departure
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 [35.17]
Suite arranged from J.S. Bach’s Partita for violin in E major, BMV 1006 [8.15]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, op. 40 [26.35]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. October 2015 (No. 4, live), April 2018 (No. 2, Partita) Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5335 [70.17]

Daniil Trifonov’s reputation took a big leap forward when he won a Grammy Award in 2017 with his Liszt album ‘Transcendental’ on Deutsche Grammophon. Last September, I relished attending Trifonov’s performing with Concertgebouw at the Kulturpalast, Dresden, under Daniele Gatti, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and now, a few months later, I’m savouring this new Trifonov album of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 4.

Enitled ‘Destination Rachmaninov · Departure’ the theme of the album documents Rachmaninov’s journey of artistic exploration. The album cover and booklet are decorated with moody photographs of Trifonov sitting in the old-fashioned compartment of a train representing the theme of journeys. Having fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Rachmaninov travelled through Europe, crossing seas and the ocean, and finally settling in the United States of America, undoubtedly undertaking most of the travel on land by train. ‘Destination Rachmaninov · Departure’ is the first volume of a two-part journey, Trifonov having recorded all four of Rachmaninov’s concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The second volume of the journey ‘Destination Rachmaninov · Arrival’ will be released in 2019. Trifonov has already recorded the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the same forces on a Grammy-nominated album titled ‘Rachmaninoff Variations’ released in 2015 on Deutsche Grammophon (review).

Trifonov is supported by the Philadelphia Orchestra who enjoyed a special relationship with Rachmaninov as soloist and recorded the set of concertos between 1929-41 under Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski. Praising Trifonov, Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin states that Trifonov is “probably the closest we have today to what Rachmaninov was.”

Written between the autumn of 1900 and spring 1901, the Piano Concerto No. 2 marked Rachmaninov’s recovery from the dark depression and writer’s block that followed the disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897. Rachmaninov dedicated the concerto to his psychotherapist Dr, Nicolai Dahl, a Russian neurologist and musician. The composer was soloist at the première November 1901 in Moscow with cousin Alexander Siloti conducting. Trifonov explains that “with his second piano concerto Rachmaninov announced his re-invention as an artist.” In the opening movement Allegro moderato Trifonov provides strongly intense playing of a special quality. Trifonov adroitly infuses an atmosphere of beauty and poetry into the heart-melting melodies of the Tchaikovskian central movement Adagio sostenuto. There is an impressive resolve to Trifonov’s playing as he contrasts the muscular lyricism of the Finale: Allegro scherzando with passages of sensitivity. With vitality and exhilaration. Trifonov and Philadelphia Orchestra under Nézet-Séguin bring the score to a particularly thrilling conclusion.    

Rachmaninov completed his Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1926, nearly ten years after fleeing Russia. The concerto, which contains elements of both American jazz and Russian folk music, bears a dedication to his friend pianist and composer Nikolai Medtner. Wracked with uncertainty, Rachmaninov subjected the score to considerable revision and has left three versions. Trifonov, who considers the Piano Concerto No. 4 as his favourite of the cycle, explains here that “Rachmaninov pushes the musical language in a new direction - and succeeds!” The Philadelphia Orchestra has a strong tradition of playing the work, having premièred the first version with the composer soloist in 1927 under Leopold Stokowski and also the third and final version in 1941 under Eugene Ormandy; which they subsequently recorded together. In the opening movement Allegro vivace, I marvel at Trifonov’s glorious playing, so remarkably bold and dynamic and relish the way he expertly develops an intensely passionate fervour. Trifonov interprets the central movement Largo with warmth and sensitivity and in the concluding movement Allegro vivace demonstrates such alert virtuosity and robust intensity. The exceptional playing from Philadelphia Orchestra adds significantly to the success of the performance, especially the woodwind and brass.

Trifonov also includes on this album Rachmaninov’s brilliant piano transcriptions of three movements from J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo violin in E major, BWV 1006. Rachmaninov’s transcriptions work marvellously with eminently stylish playing from Trifonov, clean and incisive.

Throughout this album Trifonov, is in white-hot form, demonstrating an instinctive musical understanding with the Philadelphia Orchestra. These emotionally charged works explode into life; Trifonov’s plays with seemingly boundless reserves of energy, yet always maintains focus of concentration and precision. The exhilarating change of tempo and mood is striking. In short, this is edge of the seat playing from Trifonov. In such impressive form Philadelphia Orchestra provide well-judged and sympathetic support which never feels routine.

I notice that No. 2 and the Partita are produced under studio conditions while No. 4 is taken from a live concert. The orchestra’s generous sound is generally, warmly recorded but is a touch close for my taste in the concertos, as I tend to prefer more space around the sound picture. Oscar Alan’s first-rate booklet essay ‘Destination Rachmaninov · Departure’ is both an interesting and informative.

Among the choice of recordings of both Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 4, I retain a great affection for the exhilarating accounts from Vladimir Ashkenazy and LSO under Andre Previn. Recorded in 1971 at Kingsway Hall, London, Ashkenazy’s account is on a Decca double set. Regarding the Piano Concerto No. 2, I fondly recall my appealing and stimulating first version on vinyl played by Martino Tirimo with Philharmonia under Yoel Levi on a 1982 digital vinyl recording from the Henry Wood Hall, London on Classics for Pleasure, now on EMI CFP compact disc. With two outstanding recordings of both these Rachmaninov concertos, my dilemma now is whether to choose Ashkenazy or Trifonov.

Daniil Trifonov and Deutsche Grammophon have come up trumps with this outstanding Rachmaninov album. Since its arrival, it has been a near permanent fixture in my CD player.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Marc Bridle (Recording of the Month)


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