United Kingdom Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin: Daniil Trifonov (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 13.12.2012 (RB)
Stravinsky: Suite, L’oiseau de Feu (1919)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor Op 16
Rachmaninov: The Rock, fantasy for orchestra Op 7
Scriabin: Le Poème de L’Extase Op 54
This programme was an intriguing mix of ground-breaking masterpieces from four Russian composers who, for the most part, could not stand the sight of each other. Maestro Maazel was joined by the brilliant young Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who is currently setting the classical music world alight. I first heard Trifonov back in March in the Wigmore Hall and had mixed feelings about his performance then but his performance this time round was absolutely brilliant and showed that all the hype around this young artist is fully justified.
The concert opened with the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite: in keeping with the austerity of the post war era, Stravinsky slimmed down the orchestral forces called for in the 1910 version of the score. In the opening introduction, the bass strings and trombones set the scene beautifully for this rather lavish fairy tale, while the Philharmonia made the most of the brilliant orchestral writing to bring out the fantastical elements. There was some highly expressive playing from the principal violin and cello in the ‘Round Dance of the Princesses’ with Maazel and the Philharmonia skilfully evoking Stravinsky’s pastoral tone painting. The orchestra gave an adrenalin-filled high energy performance of ‘The Infernal Dance of Kashchei’s Followers’, coping well with the whirling figurations and the textural and rhythmic changes. I was particularly impressed with the principal bassoon in ‘The Firebird’s Lullaby’ and with Maazel’s handling of the pulse and shaping of the music, while the brass did a fine job in bringing out the triumphant elements of the finale. Some of the tempi were a little sluggish which perhaps detracted from the sparkling character of the score, but it also allowed Maazel and the Philharmonia to bring out some interesting details.
Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the most difficult works in the repertoire and is not for the faint hearted. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Maximilian Schmidthof, a close friend of Prokofiev and fellow pianist, who committed suicide in 1913. Prokofiev was striving for greater musical depth in the concerto and the tragic events which surrounded the writing of the piece give it a rather heavy and ponderous feel. Trifonov bounded on to the stage ahead of Maazel not in the least bit intimidated by the massive undertaking that lay ahead. He deployed an extraordinary range of touch in theandantino opening movement, from the pearly toned opening theme to some hard, brittle playing in the development section. The climactic cadenza was played with biting harshness and brutality – exactly as it should be – with Trifonov piling up the heavy discords and taking some daring risks. The scherzo was very fast indeed; Trifonov demonstrated amazing digital dexterity and brought out the mischievous parody of the score while remaining completely in sync with the Philharmonia. The intermezzo featured some excellent ensemble playing and Trifonov’s imagination really seemed to take flight in eliciting an astonishing range of colours and musical effects. The finale was electrifying with Trifonov powering through the spiky opening section but he also found space in this most demanding of scores to show us some ravishingly tender and sensitive playing. This was absolutely sensational playing by any standards and my only wish is that he now commits this somewhat undervalued piece to disc.
Rachmanininov’s symphonic fantasy The Rock was composed in 1893, the year after his graduation from the Moscow conservatoire. It is a programmatic work which is based on Chekhov’s story ‘On the Road’, although the title comes from Lermontov’s poem ‘The Rock’. The story itself takes place on a wintry Christmas Eve and depicts a chance encounter on the road and a subsequent reflection on what might have been. There was some moody and atmospheric tone painting from the Philharmonia and I was particularly impressed with the decorative arabesques from the principal flautist. However, the performance seemed a little loose with structure occasionally being sacrificed to textural detail, and it would have benefitted from a greater sense of intensity in the musical storytelling.
The concert ended with Scriabin’sPoem of Ecstasy, which was written between 1905 and 1908. The work is harmonically very rich and full of Scriabin’s most opulent and decadent writing. Scriabin’s perfumed and exotic idiom came across very well in the opening section and there was some very sexy and sensual caressing by the principal flute and violin. Orchestra and conductor coped well with the rhythmic intricacy of the score and the clarity of line and texture was excellent. The principal trumpet did a splendid job with ‘The Will to Arise’ theme and brass and strings seemed to get to the heart of the blazing effulgence of the work. There was much to recommend this performance but on occasion it came across as a little too polite and the lines were a little too clean. I would have liked to have had a greater sense of the transgressive and hedonistic elements of Scriabin’s psyche (the first section of the work is entitled ‘His Soul in the Orgy of Love’ so there is clearly a fairly sexually uninhibited side to this composer).