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.