in: Reviews

March 6, 2018

Four Hands and One Soul

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The piano duo of Daniil Trifonov and his mentor/teacher Sergei Babayan rocked Jordan Hall on Saturday night for the Boston Celebrity Series with equal parts dreaminess and synchronized virtuosity.

Two pianos, in most pair of hands, can get ugly fast. So many works, when timing and tuning are not precise, sound like they are rendered underwater, with bad reverberation. Mozart becomes clunky (what with so many of the same chords played together on the downbeats) while most two piano works just come across as clumsy.

But if the stars align? If the pianos are properly tuned (despite a few slightly off unisons in the upper register in the one on the right) in a hall that allows for the audible reception of every range of expression from titanic to a mouse squeak, you have a good start. If you have two pianists who convey pure pleasure in working together as well as excitement in their collaboration, that helps too. If these players—one at a time—somehow are able to do their own thing, say, stretch a melodic line almost to the tearing point, while the other does his own thing, too, while staying perfectly in sync, well then, you have something else. You have duo piano wizardry, fabulous music making, and a whole lot of fun being in the audience.

There was anticipation in the air of the sold-out hall, and Trifonov and Babayan “warmed up” with Schumann’s Andante and Variations in B-flat Major, Op. 46.  A polite and proper dialogue of a piece, it rolled forward with a gentle elegance, and some occasional back-and-forth teasing. Even when things started churning as the variations build in complexity, what stood out was the big breathing in the long phrases, much rubato, and a sense of relaxation between the two pianists. The piece was delivered as dreamy at times, lovely and tender too, and even a little neurotic in the more frenetic late variations. What also came across was a sense of holding back from Trifonov, or deference, compared to that of Babayan. This difference was mostly subtle, but not always, and even between two players who seem to have a Vulcan mind meld, two distinct personalities emerged. This was most welcome, giving us stereophonic counterweights throughout the performance.

Arvo Part’s Pari Intervallo, in arrangement for two pianos, turned out to be a welcome respite from the many notes of every other work on the program. Sparse, stately, like a pensive funeral march, and utterly repetitive in rhythm, the piece was rendered quasi-hypnotic and bell-like (an uber-minimalist precursor to the Easter movement from the first Rachmaninoff Suite to follow) while sounding much like part of a movie score.

The Mozart Sonata in D Major, K. 488, to follow was joyful, bright, even delicate. The players, aware of the potential amassing of sound between two instruments playing so many of the same notes, expressed hyper-sensitivity, with phrases tapering to near nothingness, then soaring (and almost disappearing) scales, and super fast synchronized trills. At times, Trifonov played at nearly half the volume of Babayan, but all was in balance. This was buoyant, limber Mozart, no small feat with two pianos, and, if you’ll pardon my saying so, for a work so squarely packaged. They made appropriately light work it!

Then, a half hour break before our Rachmaninov festival: both Suites for Two Pianos! While his counterpart Stravinsky loved to treat the piano, and two pianos, as percussion instruments, Rachmaninov found ways not only to make two pianos as lyrical—or more so!—than one, but did so while adding more notes than would seem humanly possible to play, musically or technically.

The first Suite’s Barcarolle opening movement was lush, full of layers and textures, dreamy and distance sounding, at the same time crystalline, like an underwater dance, with deep breathing before plunges. Once again, each player would bend and extend soaring melodies while playing in perfect sync with other, alternating levels of subtle restraint with every passage. There was almost too much sigh-inducing pure beauty of sound and marvelous voicing through the first three movements. The sheer amount of data processing required here seemed staggeringly easy for these two.

With Easter, the final movement (representing the giant bells of an Eastern ceremony) things changed. The first really forceful sounds of the evening were delivered as giant pillars of chords. It was relentless. It was really fun. Trifonov did his best imitation of a rock pianist at one point, rising off the bench, more for silly audience effect than anything else, as he certainly had less torque and power in his brief standing mode.

Suite No. 2 started in only a slightly understated way as the first ended, a March with so many in-unison chords leading to exchanges of a lyrical melody, but always with the march holding sway, until ebbing away to silence. The Waltz was exhilarating: breathtaking speed and clarity (and quietness) with erupting cascades of sound back and forth between the two players and instruments, with more expansive dreaminess at the core. Interesting, with the two climaxes of the movement, the players opted for even more speed over weight and power (but then we had the Tarantella to come). There was no more rising off the bench from Trifonov, but there was some of his signature bobbing at the keyboard, with astonishing super quiet articulation of those thousands of notes.

Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov play instruments shrunken for illustrative purposes (Robert Torres photo)

The Romance was all that we would have come to expect based on the evening’s progression. It was beautiful, with more shifting background and foreground textures and tempos, and a huge building to the climax with so many cross rhythms, two against three, and triplets to spin the motion forward before dissolving into thin air.

Triplets also ruled in the final movement, the Tarantelle. But here, as with the ending of the first suite, the tenor was one of relentless drive, with a touch of anger (stabbing repeated notes) and pride. There was more amazing ensemble work and virtuosity, and it was entirely eaten up by a thrilled audience.

The single encore was “Dance of the Tumblers” from Rimsky Korsakov’s opera, Snow Maiden as arranged by Babin, one time president of the Cleveland Institute where Babayan is artist-in-residence.

After so much dreaminess, a plucky showpiece with a country-sounding theme, on the order of Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair from Petrouchka, felt just right, and just as exhilarating as the Waltz and final movements of the two Suites.  

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

1 Comment

  1. I thought this was the best concert I’ve heard all season thus far. Not to take anything away from Trifonov, but I absolutely loved Sergei Babayan’s playing. His sound, which is different from Trifonov’s, reminded me of another pianist altogether: Martha Argerich. It was two amazing musicians who had an amazing rapport, and made real music. Bravo!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 9, 2018 at 3:27 pm

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