Järvi, Trifonov and Philharmonic make first-rate case for Rachmaninoff rarities

Fri Nov 20, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Neeme Järvi conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Rachmaninoff Thursday night.

In the New York Philharmonic’s three-week fling with Rachmaninoff, the second series, which had its first hearing on Thursday night, is a strange exception. The first and third weeks are packed with a lineup of greatest hits: last week featured the celebrated Second Piano Concerto and the beloved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Next Friday we’ll hear the Symphonic Dances and the Third Piano Concerto, the piece that vaulted Van Cliburn to stardom and won Geoffrey Rush an Oscar.

The two anchors of this week’s program have long been orphans in Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre, and the opening item was an orchestral transcription receiving its New York Philharmonic premiere. All three seemed thoroughly deserving of further consideration, buoyed by first-rate playing under the baton of the veteran Neeme Järvi.

The “Russian Theme,” originally from the Op. 11 set of six pieces for four hands, is a simple, sighing folk melody, and Arkady Leytush’s 2011 orchestration beautifully fleshes out the subject into a sonorous mass while retaining its essential wistfulness. One might have wished for Järvi to differentiate a little more clearly to bring more interest to repeated gestures, but on the whole, this was a nuanced reading, full of color.

Daniil Trifonov is joining the Philharmonic as star soloist for all three Rachmaninoff programs, and on Thursday he played the Piano Concerto No. 4, a sort of forgotten sibling in the composer’s most celebrated genre. Disappointed by the piece’s cold initial reception, Rachmaninoff revised it substantially in response to criticism that it strayed too far from the successes of the earlier concerti; nonetheless, it remains markedly different from its predecessors in its final form.

The first three bars, with their open progression and clean orchestration, could nearly be mistaken for Mendelssohn, but Rachmaninoff quickly makes his voice heard through a combination of tart chromaticism and spacious writing for the piano. Trifonov displayed superb technique, tossing off the passagework with ease. His touch is precise, and he is able to vary it in order to facilitate his subtle colorations and gorgeous, breathing phrases.

He plays rather quietly, which frequently makes it difficult to hear him over the orchestra at climactic moments. This did not hurt him so much in the Largo, where he showed a keen dramatic sense in some of the stormier passages, but in the finale it was hard to discern the direction of the piece, even as he spun silk in some of his gossamer arpeggios. The music itself is admittedly a bit of a mystery: when hearing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, one expects to walk home with fistfuls of melodies, but this final movement employs jagged rhythms and never quite catches the listener with a sympathetic theme.

The Symphony No. 1, too, has historically been an ugly duckling, its disastrous premiere causing a major hiccup in the young composer’s career. Had that performance been as strong as the one Järvi led on Thursday, the symphony might well have had a very different reputation.

Järvi brought fresh, moving energy to the first movement. His baton technique at this stage is slightly awkward, a stiff, full-arm motion that nonetheless seems to communicate his intentions clearly. He brought cinematic size and richly colored playing out of the Philharmonic, who showed more than usual precision, giving a tight, shimmering account of the fugato section. In the bubbling, lively second movement, Järvi seemed to know precisely what he wanted to pull from each section of the orchestra, and executed his plan impeccably, as though pressing buttons.

The Philharmonic showed its warmest playing of the night in the lovely, dreaming Larghetto, featuring a sorrowful oboe solo, and fading out with mesmerizing coos from the clarinets. The exploding militaristic bombast could not have been any more Russian, conjuring up shades of Tchaikovsky with its crashing cymbals and hissing snares. This was the New York Philharmonic at their most focused and forceful, straight through the closing bars, which, crawling though they were, just about defined “majestic.”

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org


One Response to “Järvi, Trifonov and Philharmonic make first-rate case for Rachmaninoff rarities”

  1. Posted Nov 20, 2015 at 10:39 pm by Susan Scheid

    I just wanted to thank you for this review, which demonstrates both knowledge and balance, in dramatic contrast to that in the New York Times. In particular, you captured my own experience of this performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony beautifully.

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