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.