Trifonov’s concerto a rare epic fail; Gergiev, Mariinsky save evening with Prokofiev

Thu Nov 16, 2017 at 11:24 am
Daniil Trifonov performed his Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Daniil Trifonov performed his Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The latest installment of Daniil Trifonov’s Perspectives Series at Carnegie Hall Wednesday night had the pianist joined by the Mariinsky Orchestra and conductor Valery Gergiev. They were on hand to accompany Trifonov in the New York premiere of his Piano Concerto. It’s a good thing the superb Russian ensemble was in the house, because something needed to be salvaged from that wreck.

Trifonov’s playing has distinguished itself in his young career by the brilliance of his thinking—he brings new ideas to the standard repertory and draws out new experiences. That he has thrilling technique is secondary.

Wednesday, technique was pretty much all Trifonov had. The performance did bring a substantial portion of the audience to their feet, but for this listener it brought to mind a scene of deader-than-dead-pan hilarity in Aki Kaurismäki’s La Vie de Bohème, when Schaunard invites his friends over to hear “my new composition.” They sit, in utter seriousness, as he plays the piano randomly, sets off a siren, yells “You’re under arrest” through a bullhorn. Combine that with the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, and the concerto made a kind of sense.

In classic three-movement form, with the aesthetic manner of Late Romantic music, it was overstuffed. Beginning with a simple string line and a sense of dignified gravity, it turned manic when Trifonov entered and continued at a neurotic, slapstick pace. If only there had been a sense of humor—this was as serious as Schaunard.

The concerto never established any single idea, dropping each new phrase so quickly they all ended up sounding the same—not helped by the dully competent orchestration. With no clear structure or form—it was hard to tell if the piece was still in the first movement—nothing had any meaning. It was just Trifonov bashing his way through 30 minutes of music, a bizarre, semi-improvised cadenza, and two codas in the final movement. It was exhausting and irritating, like listening to someone with logorrhea deliver nothing but banalities. The encore of the Allegro precipitato”from Prokofiev’s Sarcasms could not make up for what had just passed.

Gergiev, on a typically inconsistent night, did not provide any sense of direction. In the opening Don Juan, from Strauss, he could not deliver any clarity.

That was not necessarily bad. The Mariinsky played with verve and a lovely warm sound. It was a mass though, comforting and bright in its own way but opaque, the details of Strauss’ counterpoint and orchestration hidden underneath the flannel.

That was the first half. In the second, the orchestra gave a superb performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6. The warmth of their sounded continued, and was burnished to a shine.

This is Prokofiev’s most mysterious symphony; the structure is elegant, the orchestration clear and bright, the overall effect compelling but difficult to pin down.

The intellect and mood of the music comes from the opening melody, a combination of perfect, minor, and diminished intervals that is both beautiful and unsettling. The flow of this, and the whole symphony, was expert. Where the concerto could have used more conductorial focus, here Gergiev’s instinct toward horizontal movement was ideal.

So was the playing. This orchestra has probably not sounded better in Carnegie than they did playing Prokofiev Wednesday night. The strings played with a taut brilliance, and the low brass were excellent, with a seamless blend, fine gradations of dynamics, and great body of sound.

The only flubs and missteps came from the audience, which made a sport of dropping solid, heavy objects on the floor all evening. This culminated in the moment of dramatic silence in the symphony’s Largo, when someone’s phone rang.

The encore was a doleful, exquisite Berceuse and Finale from the Firebird Suite. The Berceuse had the most delicate of textures, stunning precision, and was almost unbelievably slow. The sound was so extraordinary, that one wanted to just soak it in and not even get to the next beat.

Somehow, Gergiev made the upward glissandos in the harp sound like they spanned several extra measures; they were ravishing. In the Finale the brass continued their fantastic playing. Perhaps showing some fatigue, there was a slight loss in the uniformity of sound, but that brought out an Old World flavor in the music that sounded so right and expressive.

Daniil Trifonov’s Perspectives Series continues 8 p.m., February 6, when he accompanies baritone Matthias Goerne.

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