IN: Reviews

Rameau to Hammerklavier: Seatbelts Mandatory


Daniil Trifonov at Jordan Hall. a few years back. (Robert Torres photo)

Based on his riveting appearances with the BSO and, most recently, a deeply stirring Sonatenabend with Joshua Bell, expectations ran high for Daniil Trifonov’s solo recital for the Celebrity Series last night at Symphony Hall — a welcome milestone in Boston’s appreciation of the mighty virtuoso.  

Rameau’s Suite in A Minor started in a dreamy mood. Pointedly anti-harpsichord in its approach, unabashedly sustained sounds of the Allemande lasted about twice as long as one would expect, or so it felt. It took a bit of time to get adjusted to the concept, and as an attempt to calm the audience, it failed, as the hubbub of coughs, squeaks, and shuffling continued – punctuated by noisy skirmishes between listeners and their hearing aids, phones, and glucose monitors. His take stirred a bit more in the Courante and Sarabande, but a strange mood hung over the suite: more of penitence over the dances past than actually dancing. Perhaps the over-sustaining pedaling annoyed us. Only the Gavotte with six doubles, a precursor of the variations to be heard later in the program, raised the spirits.

Mozart’s Sonata K.332 with its mood swings naturally invited a high-contrast interpretation, except that it went over the top. Some sforzandi seemed exaggerated to the point of rudeness, while rushed fast passages sounded smooshed.

By the beginning of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, we already anticipated extreme swings of the tempi. In the first variation, Trifonov built up tension masterfully — like a mighty spring being tightly wound, to unload in the following ones. But, faithful to the overall spirit of the recital, the D-Major Adagio slowed down to a trance-like level.  It provided a setup for a build up to a frantic finish, just like the composer intended. But the range from lethargic adagio to a mad dash for the mighty coda reminded me a Fellini’s episode with a sports car slowly crawling through crooked medieval streets of Rimini before roaring into a triumphant traversal of a small piazza. 

Contrasts tend to satisfy however, and this finale certainly did; the inertia of rapid movement propelled the audience out of their chairs as soon as the pianist hit the brakes.

As the audience settled in post-intermission, the mighty chords of Allegro of the Hammerklavier Sonata rapidly brought us to attention. The piece de resistance of the evening unfolded with less excess than the first half. To be sure, some rather idiosyncratic and self-indulgent moments appeared here and there in the Allegro. At some point, an excessive rubato seemed to exaggerate the jagged lines to the point of disconnecting the left hand from the right, but the power of Beethoven’s architecture firmly took charge. The recapitulation landed firmly and triumphantly, and then the Scherzo pumped up energy and suspense. The Adagio built up organically as a single beautiful take with no cuts, to continue the cinematic analogy. And then as the mighty fuga developed and rolled out, it gave a chance and a space to the nine-foot monster to roar to its full glory. I had heard more heart stopping Adagios in this sonata but could not recall anyone who surpassed Trifonov’s high-octane drive in the fuga.

Just as our appreciation of the Hammerklavier swelled to its highest level, the pianist inexplicably dove into his Art Tatum’s encore, as if the teacher has left, and we were now free to play what we really like. Rather out of place on the program, it might have made sense only from one angle: as a great way to assuage the fears famously expressed by Rachmaninov that Tatum could take all classical pianists out of business. Trifonov could out-Tatum anyone…except perhaps that supreme Jazz Man Himself.

The second encore, a languid and Skriabinesque Epilogue from Chopin Variations by Mompou, brought back Trifonov, the snake-whisperer. After the jolts of the evening, we definitely welcomed that tranquilizer. 


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

  1. There’s no question that Daniil Trifonov is an incredibly talented and formidable pianist. But outside his core Russian repertoire, I’m less sure of his musicianship. This is the third time I heard Trifonov in Boston (previously his duo recital with Sergei Babayan, and his debut at Pickman Hall), and it was the concert I enjoyed the least.

    Trifonov can play anything he wants to, and do it at a level of technical mastery that is jaw-dropping. He has an amazing ability to create sonic landscapes and powerful effects, and nothing with him is routine. But in the Rameau and especially the Beethoven, it seemed that much of the time the emphasis on details obscured the journey. More specifically, it seemed Trifonov fell short in his ability to put across the architecture of much of the music he played Wednesday night, to take us along the ride with him. The Hammerklavier sonata was hugely disappointing, ending up as a morass of moments/details that did not cohere. I know the piece well, and I found this reading to be obtuse and un-involving. I was bored listening to it. Contrast last night’s performance with Beatrice Rana’s stunning performance of the Hammerklavier sonata 6 months ago in Jordan Hall, and the difference is night and day. Where Rana’s performance was very strongly architected and emotionally pulled you in, Trifonov’s performance didn’t even get to first base – even though Trifonov’s technique can put Beatrice Rana (and probably almost anyone else) to shame. Trifonov’s Hammerklavier just seemed disconnected to itself, and definitely did not connect with myself or my companions. The Rameau similarly suffered; whereas I felt the problem was one of architectural delineation, my companions thought the deficiencies were with the work itself (i.e. it’s just not that great a piece), and as a result the Rameau was one of the longest 20+ minute works any of us have sat through. The Mozart and Mendelssohn by contrast were quite successful. But the Hammerklavier was a clean miss.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 16, 2023 at 9:26 pm

  2. Hear.

    I was very surprised at what I heard: unfailingly pretty playing, almost everywhere tensionless and unsurprising. I’ve never wondered during any Hammerklavier why the pianist had chosen the piece.

    Comment by David Moran — November 17, 2023 at 1:48 am

  3. I am surprised at these is responses. This was among the most memorable, the most beautiful, concerts I have ever attended. There was not a moment in it I regret.

    The Rameau suite, a piece I am familiar with from the recordings of Alexandre Tharaud, Angel Hewitt, and Mahan Esfahani (and which I regard as a great masterpiece, no matter what some may think), was quite strange; it did not follow in the steady rhythmic track that I expect, but opened up, unfolded, revealing the harmonic construction, making each ornament a necessary phrase as he found his way. Perhaps Trifinov wanted explore the mind of the author of the Treatise on Harmony. I wanted it to go on forever.

    In K.332 he was perfectly Mozartean, with everything in balance, witty and pensive and exuberant all at once, showing that virtuosity does not need to be a display of dominance, but can be charming and humane.

    I am surprised at the dismissiveness of the above opinions, but most of all when it comes to the Hammerklavier. Never was virtuosity put to better use. Everything was there. Most performances leave something by the wayside; rhythmic drive is lost in staggering moments that are not so much expressive rubato as desperate grasping for breath, dynamic range is flattened out in an attempt to get all the notes in, the pounding hammers of the first movement either push the lyricism aside, or fail in their resolution. Trifinov sacrificed nothing; he demanded of himself everything that is in the work. In the Adagio Sostenuto, perhaps the most demanding movement in any performer’s repertoire, he achieved the mysterious coherency, the purely musical narrative, that is so elusive and so easily lost. And in the finale he became an orchestra, giving full individual character to every voice in the fugue. When, at the end, the composer insists that he wants both furiously expanding complexity, and single-minded, precipitous drive, the paradox did not balk him. Really, it is impossible, but Beethoven demands it, so the pianist does what he asks.

    Trifinov does not have a “core Russian repertoire”, any more than other Russian pianists such as Horowitz, Gilels, or Richter did. He plays Rachmaninoff, as all of them did (Richter somewhat reluctantly), but he also plays Bach, and Schumann, and Mozart. Horowitz played a lot of Russian music (his performance of Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme should be broadcast into space to discourage alien invaders); was it his “core repertoire”? This is a silly concept, an attempt to force an artist into a ghetto defined by his nationality.

    Comparisons are odorous. I too was at the Beatrice Rana concert. When I think of the two performances, my thoughts are not of how one puts the other to shame, but of gratitude that I have lived to hear them both.

    Comment by SamW — November 17, 2023 at 8:01 pm

  4. Hear, SamW.

    I thought this was a stunning performance – strikingly original in conception, and conveyed with depths of insight and feeling impossible to achieve without transcendent musical gifts and technical attainment. There’s hardly a moment I can recall in any of these familiar works where Trifonov failed to engage and surprise, beginning with the extraordinary tender palette of touch and pulse he applied to the Rameau. I found it spellbinding.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Trifonov play Mozart brilliantly before – the Fantasia in C Minor, K.475, in NY, and Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467 at Tanglewood – so I’m not sure why I was so surprised and captivated by Wednesday night’s K.332. Witty, pensive, exuberant, charming, and humane indeed!

    As to Mendelssohn’s masterful Variations Sérieuses: what a contrast between DT’s performance and the one last Friday night from András Schiff! They could hardly be more different, and yet I found each one utterly compelling. Trifonov’s was notable for the grave, almost hypnotic solemnity of the theme, leading by turns to spine-tingling frenzy in the penultimate variations. What thrilling tension and release!

    Speaking of Schiff, I can relate to his assessment of the Hammerklavier as a “monument of impenetrability’, particularly as regards the formal puzzle of the lengthy Adagio and the fugal thickets of the Allegro risoluto. Here, though, was Trifonov at his most committed, absorbed, penetrating – a tour de force of mind and heart, not soon to be forgotten.

    After that monumental performance, the last thing I expected was any sort of an encore, although this artist has been generous with them in past appearances. If he were to offer any, though, the very last things I expected were Art Tatum, in a coruscating rendition of I Cover The Waterfront, and Federico Mompou’s Chopin Variation, Epilogo. How blessed we all were by these magical displays, and how warmly and appreciatively they were received!

    Comment by nimitta — November 18, 2023 at 6:43 pm

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