Trifonov’s Chopin at Carnegie emphasizes brilliance over expression

Thu Apr 26, 2018 at 1:08 pm
Daniil Trifonov performed a recital Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Dario Acosta

Daniil Trifonov performed a Chopin recital Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Dario Acosta

The good news about the all-Chopin program that pianist Daniil Trifonov presented with the string ensemble Kremerata Baltica Wednesday night in Carnegie Hall is that the young über-virtuoso didn’t miss a note all evening, out of seemingly millions played.

The bad news is that he looked bored to death up there, and his playing sounded like it.

In the public’s brief acquaintance with this pianist and his meteoric career, he has always been an elusive presence onstage, but what mattered was what came out of the instrument: freshly imagined, brilliantly executed interpretations that brought new life to the old masters.

That Trifonov was not in the building Wednesday night. In his place was a robotic executant whose feats of digital prowess in Chopin’s showy early works, while impressive, could have been duplicated by a well-oiled player piano.

Despite his national origin, this pianist has never been particularly representative of the “Russian school,” if by that one means an emphasis on projected, singing tone and a broad color palette. When the musical ideas were coming thick and fast, that didn’t matter so much. On Wednesday, one was painfully aware of the unvarying whiteness of his tone, and of lyrical melodies that, despite some artful shaping with rubato, hardly carried sonically beyond the stage’s edge.

The program itself had considerable interest, as the first of two concerts on successive nights presenting Chopin’s entire output of compositions for more than one instrument: two concertos and a set of variations for piano and orchestra, a piano trio, and two pieces for cello and piano. All but the Cello Sonata, a fascinating late work, show a teenaged Chopin just stretching his wings — and in the case of the concertos, flying high indeed.

However, it’s not entirely unjust that the Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op. 2, have sunk into obscurity along with hundreds of other note-spinning variation sets by composer-virtuosi such as Pixis and Kalkbrenner.

It’s customary to make fun of Robert Schumann for exclaiming “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” on hearing this musically vacuous showpiece. But if the music sounds to modern ears a bit like a third-rate composer imitating Chopin, Schumann clearly heard something unique in the astonishing intricacy of the fast figurations — light years ahead of other composers’ mere zipping around in scales — and the exquisite embellishments of the rare slow passages.

Smart pacing, grace, and a sense of humor could make this piece’s 14 minutes pass quite pleasantly. On Wednesday, Trifonov just played it fast and accurately, and that was all.

The Piano Trio in G minor, a student work later published as Chopin’s Op. 8, was a different animal entirely from the variations, an earnest effort a little short on Chopin’s distinctive sound but with much to recommend it as a piece of Romantic chamber music. Distinctive themes well set in a sonata-form first movement were followed by a whimsical-tender scherzo, a searching Adagio sostenuto, and a monothematic perpetual-motion finale.

Among the Mendelssohn-like features of this piece were an overly busy piano part, which Trifonov managed to prevent from swamping his collaborators, the violinist (and Kremerata Baltica founder) Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata’s principal cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė. A little more sing in his tone would have made for better balance in the three-way dialogue that the good student Chopin wrote into his first (and last) exercise in chamber music for more than two instruments. Overall, however, this was the most satisfying performance of the evening.

A true oddity followed, an all-strings arrangement of the enigmatic, melancholy Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, with Kremer playing the tentative melody and his ensemble giving the gently throbbing accompaniment. Hearing the strings slither from note to note was a reminder of how essential the percussive ping of a piano tone — however soft or finessed — is to Chopin’s music, and particularly his dances. Hesitant and almost excruciatingly tender, dropping in a long diminuendo from soft to barely perceptible, the four-minute piece began as a mist, thinned to a fog, and ended as a vapor.

The next time someone complains that Chopin wasn’t much of an orchestrator, invite them to listen to the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, without woodwinds, brass, or timpani. That’s how Kremerata Baltica accompanied Trifonov as soloist Wednesday night, in an arrangement for string orchestra by Yevgeniy Sharlat. (Circumstances from town to town in the nineteenth century often dictated that touring soloists perform their concertos in reduced arrangements, so there’s a precedent at least.)

After the concerto’s many pages of orchestral exposition for strings only, the piano’s forte entrance sounded shockingly loud. The conductorless ensemble had its work cut out for it keeping up with the pianist’s quirky tempo spurts, but it managed to play more incisively as it went along, both to match the hard piano tone and to compensate for the missing brighter instruments in its own ranks.

For composition and musical inspiration, this piece represented an enormous advance over the other works on the program, which made one feel more keenly the nobody-home quality of Trifonov’s playing as he sat still and expressionless, his hands racing up and down the keys. Occasionally glimmers of the other Trifonov appeared, as in the touching pianissimo return of the first movement’s lyrical theme before the exciting coda. But the central Romanze lacked either lyrical arc or drama, and the crazy-fast tempo of the finale had no musical justification, only fingers gone wild.

At the end, the audience stood and called the pianist back to the stage multiple times, evidently hoping for an encore, but to no avail. That’s a pity — many a dull program has been rescued, in part at least, by a delightful encore.

Daniil Trifonov’s “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall continues with another all-Chopin program, featuring cellist Gautier Capuçon and Kremerata Baltica, 8 p.m. tonight.; 212-247-7800.


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