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Trifonov Plays Fast and Loud with Tchaikovsky


In his third set of appearances at the BSO subscription concerts (I attended Friday afternoon), guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero programmed works that kept the orchestra in almost nonstop motion. Athleticism and power were the chief characteristics on display. Roberto Sierra’s 13-year-old Fandango, the opener, was a veritable variety show for the orchestra. Think of it as a salsa-infused and orientally-cloaked Young Person’s Guide. Beginning with a Scheherazade-like motif, morphing into more Latin rhythms, in which percussionist Matthew McKay had his way with the castanets, the tunes passed from section to section, rising to crescendos and dissolving into 60s dissonance before reforming into recognizable tunes. This happened often enough to become somewhat predictable fun. Guerrero’s beat was clear and direct, his podium dancing throughout the piece telegraphing his apparent delight in this piece..

Maybe Nikolai Rubinstein was right to refuse to play the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor. He has not been the only one to discern its vulgar aspects, though he eventually recanted and became an advocate for it. At his BSO debut, the concerto served as the warhorse vehicle for the young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov.

The opening horn calls seemed rather rushed, and when Trifonov came in with his four B minor chords they sounded like the hammers of Thor. So, okay, the first four chords are always loud in this piece, but except for a very few quite lovely, lyrical asides, this performance was about shock and awe. It was clear that there wasn’t a lot of shaping and inflecting of the orchestra from Guerrero, but what was less clear is whether there was an actual war between conductor and pianist. Trifonov seemed to wish to overpower the orchestra much of the time rather than to partner with it. He is clearly gifted with the ability to do anything he wants technically. He took a youthful delight in what for him is child’s play—it was charming to see him so engaged, though it felt a bit like voyeurism.  His first movement cadenza had some moonlit moments, which showed Trifonov’s poetic side, but far too much of the time he was interested in dynamic extremes—mostly at the very loud end of the range. In a very strange disconnect, the pianist smiled cherubically while battering his helpless instrument.

There were certainly angelic moments in his performance, however, that alternated with the daemonic ones. In the opening of the second movement, Trifinov took the flute’s luscious melody to even greater expressive heights. Later he answered the oboe with fine expression and accompanied Martha Babcock’s cello solo with complete sensitivity. One would like to hear more of his work in smaller, collaborative forms where he does not feel the need to dominate.

At the world premiere in the Boston Music Hall in 1875, Hans von Bülow, playing a Boston Chickering, must have had an easier time partnering with the very small orchestra conducted by B. J. Lang, who gave the first appearances with the BSO ten years later in the orchestra’s fourth season. There would have been little left of such a Chickering had Bülow battered it to the extent that Trifonov pummeled the BSO’s Steinway.

The BSO’s 117th performance of the concerto (according to BSO archivist Bridget Carr) concluded with a frenzied ovation which elicited an appropriately loud, fast, and almost barbaric encore from the pianist: the “Infernal Dance of Prince Kashchei” from Stravinsky’s Firebird. Daniil Trifonov’s technical gifts are of the highest order, and his interpretive impulses will certainly mature. He should remember, though, that performances are not competitions— he does not need to prove himself at every outing.

After intermission came another Russian work. Prokofiev was not always content to follow the admonitions of Polonius: he borrowed from and lent to himself most liberally. In much of his Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev seemingly reworked vivid moments of his own music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet and for Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky. While the Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 100 adheres to no overt program, one cannot help imagining scrums of Capulets and Montagues standing in for warring Germans and Russians. One can’t hear echoes from “The Battle on The Ice” from Alexander Nevsky without recalling an epic contest of good versus evil. Nor can one hear strains of the lament, “Field of the Dead,” without calculating the cost of the Nazi invasion.

Though we have heard other performances more freighted with angst, Guerrero and the orchestra built a granitic structure from bold strokes. Everything fit perfectly together without mortar in a monumental performance we will long remember.

Giancarlo Guerrero and Daniil Trifonov (Stu Rosner photo)
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


12 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I did not hear the performance but I find the Lee’s comments to be “generically” interesting. Why “generically”? Because what Lee wrote is pretty much a generic overview of most of the contemporary attempts by young pianist to play Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto. You pretty much might change the name of pianist and the very same review will be applicable to let say 90% of the nowaday’s performing attempts of play the concert. Some other composers are luckier -the contemporary bangers more delicate with them. The Tchaikovsky however acts to them like red color to a bull and they flood the concert halls with barbarian keyboard pounding. Save the template of this review, Lee. We will have a next promising “keyboard star” coming very soon to play Tchaikovsky…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 10, 2012 at 4:54 pm

  2. At one point in the cadenza Guerrero actually turned to the pianist and put his left hand on the piano, in a gesture which to me looked somewhere between an attempt to prevent the piano from falling apart and an attempt to send a ‘take it easy, dude’ signal to the pianist. If the latter, it failed utterly.

    Comment by Sergei Karacharov — November 10, 2012 at 11:31 pm

  3. I should very much agree with what Lee reviewed. Being surrounded by and suffered from the long duration of piano sound torture, I even had the same thing in my mind: Rubinstein had every right to reject this music, if that was what he had imagined.

    But I would not say it was warhorse. Nor was it vulgar. Lifeless was what it was. It was obvious to me that the young pianist treated this piece as a 21st century composition. He played every note like modern noise/music. The conductor seemed to be on board with him. Even when the orchestra had the spotlight, they were lifeless.

    I truly don’t understand what inspired the audience’s long standing ovation. In my definition, vulgar it was.

    Technically, the conductor showed some weakness. In both Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the orchestra played very unsmooth and awkward diminuendo.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 11, 2012 at 12:18 am

  4. Ok, I did not read RC’s comment. She said sth …

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 11, 2012 at 12:19 am

  5. I sat first balcony, front row on Saturday evening with a perfect view of both Daniil Trifonov’s key board prowess and the Conductor’s occasional glances over his left shoulder at this fine young talent. I remember the cadenza that Mr. Karacharov references and that particualar conductor’s turn toward Mr. Trifonov was one of admiration not concern at Mr. Trifaonov’s phenomenal technique. His hands became a blur where I sat, they moved so fast. Mr. Eiseman needs to give this 22 year old a little slack. With maturity his style will blend in better with the orchestra, but let him sow a few oats at the start of what by all accounts will be a stellar solo career.

    Comment by Gary M. Markoff — November 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm

  6. Listening on the radio to the Saturday night performance my impression was similar to the comments above. The performance was loud, fast and without shape. I also thought of Nikolai Rubenstein’s initial reaction. The performance made the concerto sound trashy and vulgar. I later listened to recordings of Gilels and Curzon which showed how exciting and interesting the piece can be. What a differnce a performance can make!

    Comment by jon guttmacher — November 11, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  7. any opinions on Prokofiev No 5?

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm

  8. jon guttmache: The performance was loud, fast and without shape….

    jon, not to defend this performance but I would like to note that there is another non-musical reasons why your radio was loud and shapeless. The sound of Saturday evening broadcast was mercilessly compressed. Not much different from what WCRB do lately across the board, however recently the WCRB hit the new low and their live broadcasts they compress more than the material they play during the day. This absolutely insensible compression make everything equally loud and over the radio BSO harp sound with similar loudness then BSO Brass. The limiting they use is also beyond of being funny. A good strike of Timpani become actually silent, like the whole orchestra is falling into some kind of sonic black hole. The WCRB hosts might be drooling their saliva spreading those wonderful verbiage about Classical New England but the reality is that on that Saturday I, the listener, was forced to abandon my listening as it was literally painful.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 13, 2012 at 11:50 am

  9. What Romy said: Well that explains why the P5 made so little an impression on me that my ears tuned out after the 1st movement.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — November 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm

  10. I tuned in the FM station (99.5MHz?) and drove my car on I93 in between Boston and I95. The signal reception was not great. I could hear a lot of hiss. Where do you guys listen to that station? Do you use bigger antenna?

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm

  11. Thorsten Zhu: Where do you guys listen to that station? Do you use bigger antenna?

    Yes, sort of… It is in West Woburn


    Comment by Romy The Cat — November 14, 2012 at 7:08 am

  12. Wow, awesome!
    It survived Sandy… I suppose.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm

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