Trifonov leads off Philharmonic’s Rach fest with double play
The New York Philharmonic on Wednesday began what promises to be one of its main box-office draws of the season, a three-week exploration of Rachmaninoff. Russia’s last great Romantic composer has always been a favorite target for contrarian critics who see him as a musical reactionary. Yet the unfettered and unabashed emotion of his music and rich melodic appeal maintain a strong communicative power, as demonstrated on this occasion by drawing a midweek audience that was close to capacity.
Still, an entire program of Rachmaninoff can begin to feel like a post-Halloween candy binge, a feeling that certainly was present for Wednesday’s first half. The first item, The Isle of the Dead, took considerable time to jell. In its opening stretches, conductor Cristian Măcelaru, making his Philharmonic debut, captured the essential murkiness of the music, but in fact the playing was too murky, generally. While there were no points of outright raggedness, a general softness of ensemble kept the music from feeling cohesive until the climactic blooming light.
The ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini proved uneven, as well. Daniil Trifonov, still just twenty-four, has already positioned himself as one of the foremost pianists on the concert circuit, to say nothing of being a formidable interpreter of Rachmaninoff. He had no trouble at all channeling the virtuosic spirit of the piece, tearing through the difficult runs with bravado and making the chords of the piano glimmer in the lyrical variations. At the same time, he seemed to be taking the Rhapsody a little too seriously: it is no trifle, sure, but neither is it a brooding rumination. There is humor in this music, and wit in its playful melodrama, which were largely missing in Trifonov’s interpretation.
It’s hard to think of a piano concerto woven more deeply into the public consciousness than Rachmaninoff’s Second. From Sinatra to The Seven-Year Itch, its use as a symbol of romantic passion ensured that it would be among the most recognized and beloved pieces of music written in the twentieth century (albeit barely: the piece was completed in 1901).
One can’t argue with Trifonov’s interpretation of this touchstone work—right from the opening bars of the first movement, his reading of the piece was clear: inward-looking, poised, but no less intense for that. He delivered the opening chords in almost straight time, executing a perfect crescendo without the slightest hint of an accelerando, allowing the progression to achieve its own effect of hair-raising inevitability. The orchestra, though not able to achieve a real velvety texture in the unforgiving acoustic of Geffen Hall, nonetheless dug in with a generous, rich tone.
Trifonov’s account of the Adagio was one of stunning simplicity. Straightforward and honest, he indulged in no dramatics, but was content to follow closely the contours of one of the most intoxicatingly beautiful melodies in the Romantic canon. The orchestra in this movement has to be an equal collaborator, and though the Philharmonic felt unsettled early on, they eventually rose to the challenge and delivered beautiful warmth in the strings’ handling of the sighing theme.
Only the finale was problematic for Trifonov. He disputed Măcelaru’s tempo early on, and continued to tamper with it thereafter. There’s certainly room to vary the pace here, but by overindulging and straying too far and too often from the base tempo Trifonov obstructed the natural, integral flow of the movement. In addition, he was playing on a Steinway with a smallish voice, which enabled him to play tenderly in the second movement but made it much more difficult to find the swagger necessary for the conclusion. In the coda he was next to inaudible over the triumphant bombast of the orchestra.
The audience demanded an encore, and got Trifonov’s own original transcription of the overture to Die Fledermaus. On first hearing, it sounded as though there might have been a little fudging around the edges of the passagework, and some of the chromatic touches worked better than others. On the whole, though, this is an entertaining, idiosyncratic little showpiece, and it is a joy to hear performers like Trifonov indulge in playful bonbons like this.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org