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New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
11/11/2015 -  & November 12, 13, 14, 17, 2015
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead, Opus 29 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43 – Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18
Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Cristian Măcelaru (Conductor)

Isle of the Dead, 1886 (© Google Art Project)

The New York Philharmonic gave us four hauntings last night, the first concert for a month of Rachmaninoff. The first was the picture shown here of Arnold Böcklin's haunting Isle of the Dead, which he painted and re-painted many times. (This is his last version). The second was Rachmaninoff's own tone-poem on the picture, haunting, evocative, seriously chilling.

The second two haunts aren't quite so amiable. When you hear the Paganini Rhapsody, that 18th truly rhapsodic Variation sticks in your ears like SuperGlue. And the only way to get it out is to replace it with main theme from the finale of the Second Concerto. Full Moon and Empty Arms moves into your brain and stays there like an incubus for hours, sometimes days at a time.

Still, one must admit that Sergei Rachmaninoff could write not only lasting tunes, but he was a master orchestrator (as one hears throughout Isle of the Dead), could build up a crescendo better than Rossini. And with a master pianist, both the Rhapsody and Concerto are delicious pieces.

Daniil Trifonov is not a “master pianist”. He soars into another category. That, though, is later.

D. Trifonov/C. Măcelaru (© Dario Acosta/Askonas Holt)

One had to start with Cristian Măcelaru's less than masterly Isle of the Dead. In his premiere with the New York Philharmonic, he looked every part of the fine young conductor. His movements were broad, he seemed to cue in every instrument on time, he had all the energy needed.

But what happened last night? For success, one's imagination must fly, one must hear Charon's oars in the waves, one must listen to the seagulls and taste the death in the first low-brass chords. Under Mr. Măcelaru's baton, the brass were flat (if not unsteady), the strings were muddy, I couldn't hear the harp above the basses and horns, and the attacks were less than steady.

Three-quarters of the way through, the fierce bang-bang-bang chords were played loudly yet what they had in volume they lacked in force. Perhaps the Phil was not accustomed to the conductor's movements (this is his premiere performance), or the conductor wasn't sure how to handle them. But this very early work of Rachmaninoff was hardly juvenile. It is a consummate symphonic poem. We were given the “symphony”, but neither the poem nor the picture.

Still, once the still youthful Daniil Trifonov danced—almost literally danced—on the stage, all else was forgotten. We host many a thunderous dramatic young Russian pianist these days (all of them heir to Yefim Bronfman), but Mr. Trifionov has the added distinction of having fun at the keyboard. He weaves with the sounds, he can be stolid and caring, but when necessary can jump to the tunes.

And with an entire month devoted to Rachmaninoff and Trifonov, the joy must be multiplied. The artist feels that special linking to the composer. “I relate to his Russian character, as well as his love for the language of musical Romanticism,” he once said. And he proved it last night.

Rachmaninoff was obviously in an uncharacteristically jovial mood when he wrote the Paganini variations, and Trifonov knew that instinctively. The original caprice was quiet enough, yet he offered the tension to show this was a jack-in-the-box theme, ready to surprise and dazzle. In those tricky movements like the Ninth Variation, he had total precision. The Fifteenth Variation was an example of utmost fluidity. Even the “romantic” theme was woven into the pattern.

As for the jumping chords of the finale variation—the one which not even Rachmaninoff was certain how to play!!!—Trifonov took it as if it were the simplest thing in the world.

At the finish, with a needed intermission, I was still awestruck at Mr. Trifonov's hands. They were loose, relaxed, I had never heard the double-octave runs of the Rhapsody played with such clarity. One heard here the sounds of a simply unearthly (and most jovial) piano player.

After that intermission, Messrs Trifonov and Măcelaru worked from the opening chords into the most popular of the composer's concerti. The Second Concerto had all the energy and a lot more gravity than the Rhapsody. This kind of virtuosity cannot be described, it must be heard to be believed. Not that Mr. Trifonov precluded solemnity when necessary, as he showed in the second movement. By the finish, though, one didn't fear that he had broken the keys of the Steinway (never did he smash down), one only feared that the applause wouldn't stop.

He stopped it himself with his own encore. A brilliant hell-for-leather Lisztian re-writing of Johann Strauss's Overture to Fledermaus. One of those works which can sing when necessary but which more frequently was a whirling, swirling, mad and manic dementia.

To repeat, Daniil Trifonov is no “master pianist”: he is a mischievous young Olympian god of the keyboard.

Harry Rolnick



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