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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Destination Rachmaninov - Arrival
The Silver Sleigh Bells Op. 35, 1st movement (1913, transcribed Trifonov) [6:56]
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor Op. 1 (1891/1917) [28:15]
Vocalise Op. 34 no 15 (1915, transcribed Trifonov) [3:34]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 (1909) [43:01]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. November 2016 (No.1) April 2018 (No.3, live) Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. February 2019 Berlin Philharmonie (Op. 35, live) January 2018 Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton University (Op. 34, live)
Reviewed from press preview.  Also available on vinyl LP.

For me this was a highly anticipated release following the first volume of Trifonov’s ‘Destination’ series of the Rachmaninov concerti, entitled ‘Departure’ (4835335: Recording of the Month - review - review - Autumn 2018/2). I will happily confess that I swooned a little over the Philadelphia strings in that old warhorse the second concerto, and the account of the fourth took it to the top of my list of recommendations, not least on account of its excellent rich sound.

The question is how does this new disk, whose principal meat lies in the first and third concertos compare? The sound from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the DG engineers is still as lush as in the first volume, even listened to as wav files. (By way of comparison I also listened to this set streamed on Spotify where climaxes tended to either grow congested or to become rather crumbly.)

Throughout, the conductor draws a suitably Hollywood (in the best sense) sound from the orchestra, which I personally found thrilling as sheer sound. It can only be a very good thing to hear such a famous orchestra in such rude health and maintaining its traditions suitably updated for the 21st century.

Turning to the interpretations of the concertos, there are lots to enjoy in the First Concerto. I can’t be the only one who tends to overlook this work but Trifonov and Nezet Seguin deliver it with great passion and drama, where my reference accounts by Ashkenazy and Previn offer stately grandeur. This account has much in common with Pletnev’s version from 1988 with Libor Pešek - review. Pletnev squeezes an ounce more lyricism out of the quieter passages, but Trifonov is just that little bit riper in his approach.

Where the newcomers really come into their own is in their ravishing traversal of the slow movement, with the Philadelphia woodwind showing themselves more than a match for the more celebrated string section. If Trifonov sometimes has a tendency to bang the keyboard a little in the finale, this all adds to the excitement of a performance that really did make me wonder why I don’t listen to this concerto more often.

It goes without saying that Trifonov is more than capable of meeting the enormous technical challenges of the Third Concerto. His incredible facility seems at least part of the problem with this performance: it all feels just a little too glib. By way of comparison, the obvious starting point would seem to be the composer’s own account with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in 1940 (Naxos). Rachmaninov at the piano is surprisingly playful, clearly enjoying himself with the shifting rhythmic emphasis that Trifonov seems to glide over a little too effortlessly. The first movement in particular has the feel of a very luxurious run through. Putting on Argerich (with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin under Chailly) on Decca - review - we are immediately dealing with an entirely different level of engagement and intensity: the drama is gripping.

A different problem besets the slow movement. For a pianist of his dexterity, it is striking how clumsy his rendition of the more delicate accompanying figures is in this movement. Probably my personal favourite version of this concerto is Horowitz’s 1978 live version with Ormandy and the New York Philharmonic -review. This record is, of course, notorious: ridiculously awful sound and wrong notes by the cartload. Thankfully, the LP has been replaced with another live account from the same year with the NYPO this time conducted by Mehta. Freed of the opening night nerves of his latest comeback, Horowitz gives us poetry as well as pyrotechnics. More than that, Horowitz consistently delivers what I can only describe as panache. To my ears even his wrong notes are delivered with an aplomb that I find missing from Trifonov. Horowitz, as an old school virtuoso, recognised that the great 19th century pianistic tradition was as much about style as technical accomplishment.

It is no real surprise, then, that Trifonov’s performance finally catches fire with the scherzo section of the slow movement and, fortunately, from that point onwards never really looks back. Horowitz and Rachmaninov himself bring different kinds of mordant wit to the variations in the finale, but Trifonov’s fearless assault on the movement’s end generates a ferocious head of steam.

The filler tracks reflect the nature of the album as a whole in being a game of two halves: the Sleigh Bells glitter dazzlingly where the ubiquitous Vocalise is oddly lumpy (both are given in the pianist’s own transcriptions).

Ultimately, for all its many virtues I am left disappointed by this recording. Perhaps the first volume of Trifonov’s Rachmaninov concerti led me to expect an unreasonable amount. The first concerto glows, but ultimately the first movement of the third takes this out of contention with the very best alternatives. If this is Arrival, then with Trifonov it is clearly better to travel than to arrive.

David McDade

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