A Fine Dvořák Performance but a Puzzling Approach to Rachmaninov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Smetana, Rachmaninov, Dvořák: Daniil Trifonov (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 15.10.2015 (AS)

Smetana: The Bartered Bride – Overture
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, B141


Daniil Trifonov’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was a strange affair. He played the chords that begin the work in a very deliberate fashion, almost as if he was preparing us for an oncoming contrast. But no, he continued in the same style, adopting slow tempi, and showing emotional restraint and detachment from the natural flow of the music. His phrasing, if it can be called that, was curiously mechanical. For the most part, each note in a sequence was given the same value, and sounded the same as its neighbour. There was no moulding of phrases, no sense of line. Instead we heard a series of vertical blocks.

Would there be a change of heart in the second movement? Not at all. Again the music proceeded in a series of vertical chunks, in slow motion tempo. The music didn’t live, because its natural flow of phrase was stifled. Occasionally Trifonov showed a little more expression in his playing, but not enough to bring the music to life.

The basic tempo for the finale was at first rather more akin to that which we normally experience, but though there was nothing wrong with Trifonov’s actual technique, his detached style sounded curiously cumbersome and before long he was slowing up again. There was rather more rhetoric demonstrated towards the end of the piece, but the expression was unnatural and applied from without, so that the final climax merely seemed bombastic and not a logical and triumphal conclusion.

Trifonov’s approach to the work was not uninteresting, and it was certainly very different from performances we usually hear, but it was willfully at variance not only with the spirit of the written score, as is shown clearly in the two recordings of the work that have been left to us with the composer as soloist. Conducting without a score, Jakub Hrůša achieved marvels in getting the orchestra to match his wayward partner, though the slow tempo at the beginning of the second movement clearly taxed the breath control of his woodwind soloists. Clearly a great deal of preparation must have been necessary in rehearsal to reach such an efficient collaboration.

So had enough rehearsal time been left for the overture? It seemed as if this might not have not been the case, since the performance was lively enough, but very slightly ragged, not least in the tricky fugato passages for the separate string sections at the beginning of the piece.

One would expect a Czech conductor to thrive in the glories of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, and Hrůša clearly enjoyed the experience. At once there was an uplifting, naturally joyous quality in the first movement’s triple-time rhythm, with warm, affectionate phrasing and responsively athletic playing from the Philharmonia. Notable in the second movement was a poignantly yearning quality of expression in the playing, and a luminous quality in the sound with a kind of inner glow that is difficult to convey in words and is unique to the best performances of Czech music. The music just flowed enticingly onward, the gorgeous melodies being allowed to unfold naturally until the end was regretfully reached.

If the tempo for the Scherzo was a little quicker than we normally hear, there was still room enough for the dance rhythm to be clearly and deliciously defined, and the trio section was lovingly phrased. In the finale Hrůša achieved some very telling, naturally expressive changes of pulse, and he showed particular skill in integrating these brief comments on the music into a structure that was developed with a good deal of energetic momentum. Clearly this young Czech conductor has thoroughly absorbed the style and compositional traits of his great compatriot.


Alan Sanders


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