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Silver Age
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Serenade in A (1925) [11:57]
The Firebird (1910) Suite for piano arr. Guido Agosti (1928) [12:48]
Three Movements from Petrushka (1923) [17:59]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-14) [12:36]
Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, Op. 84 (1944) [29:08]
Three Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 95: Gavotte (1944) [3:08]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1912-13, rev. 1923) [32:33]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20 (1896) [25:10]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 2019, Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia (concertos); Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, USA
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5331 [69:39 + 75:44]

The Silver Age in the Russian arts, primarily poetry, the Age of Symbolism, began during the final decade of the nineteenth century and lasted through the first two or three decades of the twentieth. It contrasted with the Golden Age of Russian literature during the bulk of the nineteenth century. Most, but not all, of the works on this two-disc fall within that timeframe, though Stravinsky by then had left Russia and Prokofiev’s style had undergone a dramatic change by the time of the Second World War. Daniil Trifonov views this moniker, thus: “The Silver Age period of art in Russian history is not a single aesthetic, but describes an increasingly fractured social, political and intellectual environment – a cocktail of different artistic expressions, in agitated interaction.” When one listens to the works presented here with their large variety of emotions, one can appreciate the designation in its broader context. Whether or not one can identify any particular piece with the Silver Age, the staggering performances are clearly worth the price of admission. Likewise, Trifonov’s virtuosity serves the music rather than the other way around. The programme is arranged with Stravinsky’s Serenade, Prokofiev’s solo piano works, and The Firebird transcription on the first CD; the Petrushka pieces and the Prokofiev and Scriabin concertos on the second CD.

Stravinsky’s Serenade has little of Russia about it and belongs to his period of Neo-classicism. It was a result of the composer signing his first gramophone recording contract and consists of four movements: Hymne, Romanza, Rondoletto, and Cadenza finala, each short enough to fit on the single side of a 78-rpm record. The key of A is meant to be neither major nor minor, but only the tonic pole to which the work gravitates. As in much of Stravinsky’s writing of this period, the Serenade is reflective of the eighteenth century and is pleasant, if not the most memorable of his compositions. It has received a number of recordings. The only one I have as a reference is Stravinsky’s own from 1934. Naturally, the sound on that is very dated, as well as the composer’s interpretation being rather wooden. Trifonov can be so much lighter and more fun, as in the delightful Rondoletto, and yet slower and more thoughtful in the Romanza, but never dull as the composer sometimes is.

The other Stravinsky works here are transcriptions of two of this most famous ballets, The Firebird and Petrushka. Stravinsky himself arranged three movements of the latter for piano and it has become a staple of the repertoire. Trifonov captures the characterization of this ballet music so well that one hardly misses the orchestration. The first of the pieces, the Russian Dance, dazzles; the second, Petrushka’s Room well demonstrates the pianist’s unimpeachable dynamics and touch; and The Shrovetide Fair, the last movement, encapsulates the variety of the ballet with its percussive writing that Trifonov really nails. I would not want to ever trade this for the orchestral original, but I cannot imagine anyone playing this piano arrangement better than Trifonov. His enjoyment of the music is palpable.

The Firebird transcription was made by Guido Agosti and is successful, if not at the level of the Petrushka pieces. It presents music that ends the ballet: Infernal Dance, Lullaby, and Finale. The Infernal Dance is a virtuoso tour de force easily conquered by Trifonov. It leads directly to the Lullaby and the contrast of its subdued nature couldn’t be more apparent. Trifonov pulls out all the stops in the Finale, which with its grandiose gestures reminds more than a little of the Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This powerhouse performance makes the transcription a viable supplement to the original, though I will not likely return to it as often as I do to the Petrushka pieces.

While all the selections in this set are well worth hearing, if I had to choose just two they would be Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata and Second Piano Concerto to best demonstrate both the technical feats and the depths of expression of Trifonov’s pianism. The first item on disc one by this composer, however, is his wild and wooly Sarcasms from his earliest period of creativity. They are mainly percussive works that sound at times like early Bartók. Three of the five movements are designated as tempestoso, smanioso and precipitosissimo. This is fascinating music, maybe more “iron age” than “silver.” I reviewed Steven Osborne’s account of these on a superb Hyperion disc (review), including the Visions fugitives that I now think are better suited to his temperament than the Sarcasms when compared with Trifonov’s. There is little to choose in the technical sense, but Trifonov really excels in the percussive nature of the pieces and is somewhat heavier and more powerful when appropriate. He also captures the mystery and eeriness, as in the final precipitosissimo, so well.

I also strongly recommended Osborne’s recording of the Sonata No. 8 (review) and continue to do so. This is the last and most imposing of Prokofiev’s three wartime sonatas. Both pianists do total justice to the great work. Osborne may have the edge in his dynamic variety, but the power Trifonov produces is astonishing. The fast runs near the end of the polyphonic first movement have to be heard to be believed. Each pianist captures the simplicity of the beautiful song-like second movement with Trifonov slightly quicker than Osborne. I appreciate the way Trifonov plays the short accompanying notes, giving the music a dance-like quality. The finale is a virtuoso knockout. Osborne astonishes, while Trifonov is a bit heavier and not quite as fleet. But, my goodness, what a performance! As a sort of encore he performs the Gavotte from Cinderella, a nice diversion from the sonata—like a palate cleanser before he plunges into the Infernal Dance from The Firebird with barely a pause.

The two major concertos in this set both fall into the Silver Age period and both represent their composers well from their early periods. Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 is the most demanding of his five piano concertos, but did not achieve the popularity of its successor or even of its predecessor until recent times. It now seems that every pianist of worth is doing it. Prokofiev completed the work in 1913. However, the concerto was destroyed in a fire following the 1917 Russian Revolution and the composer had to reconstruct it, which he did in 1923 after completing his Third Concerto. My yardstick for the piece has long been Vladimir Ashkenazy’s with André Previn and the London Symphony on Decca in their set of the complete Prokofiev piano concertos. I still treasure those performances, but Trifonov’s of the Second Concerto must now be my first choice. He is a bit lighter and more animated in the first movement and knocks the socks off everyone else I have heard in the second movement Scherzo. Ashkenazy is also exciting and fast, but Trifonov’s playing has a clarity that beggars belief at an even slightly faster tempo. I am still partial to Ashkenazy/Previn in the third movement Intermezzo where the heavy tuba at the beginning conjures up the image of a prehistoric monster so well, yet they do not shortchange the wit in the score. Again Trifonov/Gergiev are not quite as heavy and bleak, but warmer and more whimsical. Trifonov’s piano part is also clearer, but both accounts leave nothing to be desired here. As with the Scherzo, Trifonov is absolutely brilliant in the first theme of the tempestuous finale and the orchestra’s brass really growls. Then in the following march, as well as being subdued, Trifonov is more songful than Ashkenazy and finds a myriad of colours that haunt the listener as no other. The fireworks concluding the work in this account should elicit vociferous shouts of “bravo.” Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra are with Trifonov all the way here as they are for the Scriabin concerto.

I was not well acquainted with Scriabin’s Op. 20, but will now want to hear it again and again. It is such a beautiful and underrated Romantic work. It shows influences primarily of Chopin and Schumann and is typical of Scriabin’s early work, less Lisztian and chromatic than his mature compositions and, in my opinion, better for it. Trifonov’s recording has some competition, most recently by Kirill Gerstein and the Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko (review) which I have not heard, also containing what I consider Scriabin’s best symphony, the Symphony No. 2. The centerpiece in the concerto’s three-movement structure is a lovely song played by the strings with four variations that linger in the mind long afterwards. On either side of this movement is an Allegro, the first with attractive horn and clarinet solos and the piano well integrated in the texture. The finale is by some degree the longest of the three movements and bears the weight of the music. It begins with a lively theme and the piano writing recalls both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, especially the second subject but with Scriabin’s personal stamp. It requires the virtuosity of a Trifonov and clearly gets that here.

In every way, this set is a must not only for Trifonov fans, but also for all piano aficionados. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The sound is state-of-the-art in both locales where the works were recorded. Engineers Silas Brown for the solo works and Marcus Herzog for the concertos deserve much credit. In addition, DG has contributed a deluxe bi-fold album with black and white photos of Trifonov and a worthwhile essay on the Silver Age in Russian music and how the particular works relate to it.

Leslie Wright



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