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To vamp or not to vamp

Verizon Hall
10/01/2015 -  & October 3*, 4, 2015
Maurice Ravel: Une barque sur l’océan
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, op. 40
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)

D. Trifonov (© Dario Acosta)

Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is programming music that typifies the famed ‘Philadelphia Sound’ this year, featuring many famous works that the orchestra commissioned and premiered in the last century.

Nézet-Séguin opened the 2015-16 concert series with Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan, which had its US premiere in Philadelphia in 1953. Nézet-Séguin has been spare the last three years in programming French repertoire opting heavily for German, Eastern European and Russian symphonic works, so it was great to hear his interpretive stamp on Ravel. The strings are particularly vibrant in illuminating Ravel’s interlocked textures and conjuring impressionist tonalities. The youthful painterly quality of the piece is a preview to the composer’s more mature works. Nézet-Séguin elicits its expansive vistas, never leaning on the theatricality of the orchestral waves, but going for much more evocative balance.

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote several works for the Philadelphia Orchestra and himself was at the keyboard for the 1926 premiere performance of his Fourth piano concerto, with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Rachmaninoff was back to perform the piece again, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the 1941 revision. As much as Rachmaninoff’s more romantic compositions are associated with the Fab Phils, this concerto reveals a much more daring and innovative composer. It returns, finally, in the hands of the electrifying Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, winner of both the 2011 Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions and regarded as one of the most lucid interpreters of Rachmaninoff’s piano pieces.

Nézet-Séguin asked the audience to try to muffle any coughing if possible since they were recorded the live performance for a Deutsche Grammophon release next year. Everyone obeyed and not a rustle was heard from the moment Trifonov sat, such was the pianist’s command. Trifonov has a volcanic intensity, going from sitting bolt upright at the keyboard, to being hunched over the instrument like it was a microscope hair flopped over his eyes and his hand floating up. He whips into the Rachmaninoff furies, bouncing off the bench, but it looks in the service of the music, not theatrics. The piano runs accelerate as fast as a pistol shot and decrescendo just as fast. Trifonov seems to be in his own zone, but his fluency with the orchestra from every angle is flawless. He also played to Verizon Hall that can have evaporating acoustics if the pianist doesn’t make adjustments in pitch. The audience lusty applause brought the pianist back onstage for the tricky contrapuntal riffs of Nikolai Medtner’s Alla reminiscenza (Opus 38 No. 8).

The closer Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade seemed a rushed and brassy showpiece, in this performance almost vampy, despite the controlled tones of violin soloist David Kim, and the serene sonic grace of harpist Elizabeth Hainen. The bombast of Rimsky-Korsakov’s depiction of 1001 Arabian Nights, with the repeated theme, even its variations, becomes tedious, even as a tableau of contrasts and soloist mise-en-scenes, delivering fine line subtleties that get swallowed up in that cloying hook. Only in the last movement did the heavy footed orchestral drive balance out.

Lewis Whittington



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