Virtuoso Prokofiev from Trifanov and Stoic Nielsen from Gilbert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Prokofiev, Nielsen: Daniil Trifonov (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 8.4.2016. (GD)

Sibelius:  En Saga

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor,Op. 16

Nielsen: Symphony No 4 Op 29 The ‘Inextinguishable’

Trifonov gave a virtuoso performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (in the standard 1923 revised version).  His  extraordinary pianism came into its own in the first movement’s immense – almost Panglossian – cadenza, with its references to Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and even a trace of Bach in its extended toccata style. The D minor second movement Scherzo was also impressive with a clear delineation of its semi-quaver octaves. The return to a grim G minor marcato figure,  initiated by the piano in the third movement Intermezzo was radiant in its delivery, with a very well rehearsed and persistent extension of stark rhythms in the orchestra’s lower registers reminding one of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, which actually had impressed Prokofiev. And this relentless rhythmic harshness carries over into the last movement Allegro tempestoso with some lighter relief in the shape of variations on Russian folk-tunes in the second subject. This array of staggering diversity was projected with real musical understanding and a quite stunning delivery of the long kaleidoscopic cadenza mentioned above This was impressive playing with empathetic and brilliant accompaniment from Gilbert and the LSO, it ticked all the proverbial boxes, including a most satisfying rapport, dialogue between soloist and conductor. But ultimately I felt that there was something lacking, in particular a certain pianistic ‘depth’ and grandeur – the kind of depth and grandeur I have heard in concert from the likes of Victoria Postnikova and Alexander Toradze. Both these pianists had the ability to encompass a whole range of different musical/pianistic elements, from quiet lyricism to dazzling harmonic/contrapuntal constellations. Although Trifonov played every note the composer wrote I felt at times that virtuosic brilliance was his main interpretive objective, sometimes at the expense of the diversity and depth associated with the older pianists mentioned above. But, by any standards, this was a dazzling and most enjoyable performance of Prokofiev’s longest and in some ways most complex piano concerto. As an encore and  contrast to the Prokofiev concerto, Trifonov played the charming ‘Silver fairy variation’ from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty in a transcription by Mikhail Pletnev.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is aptly named the ‘Indistinguishable’ as representing a kind of stoical commentary on the grim determination of all  life forms, both progressive and regressive/disruptive. There was no hint of any Nietzschean ‘Ubermensch’ vitalism here.  Gilbert launched into the opening fire of symphonic conflict exploding into full energy from two opposing keys, C and D minor, with a real ‘Allegro’ conviction.   By the time we reached the first development section, moving with real tutti fff frenzy from remote minor keys and striving progressively towards the resplendent home key chorale in E major (marked ‘glorioso’ by the composer incidentally) the performance really caught fire and one was in the thrall of some of the most extraordinary powerful orchestral writing of the early Twentieth Century – from the summer of 1914 to be exact, which of course tells its own story. Here, as in much of this protean work, we experience the clash of both extreme vivacity (life force) and the undertow of darker, even destructive forces, which Freud, writing at much the same time, referred to as the realm of ‘Thanatos’ or ‘Death drive’. Here Nielsen’s orchestration is truly unique: there are shattering timpani, swirling string cross-rhythms, hectic brass stabs and quasi-chorale figures, with screaming piccolo and high flutes cutting through the severe textures. The actual climax of the movement, where the tonic E major is once again heroically rammed home in chorale form, gives way, in one of the most beautifully subtle of transitions, to the G major of the intermezzo-like second movement for woodwinds  ‘Poco allegretto.’ This transition was   brought of with a poetic finesse,  although I missed some of the pastoral tranquility found in this music by some other conductors, such as Grondhal and Blomstedt. But the LSO woodwind were in excellent form here, and indeed throughout the concert.

The canonic discussion in the strings punctuated by bass pizzicato and timpani that initiates the third movement’s ‘poco adagio quasi andante’ had a direct and fitting stoical quality tonight, with the transition to the final allegro disruption finely handled. The finale itself, as Robert Simpson once remarked, is pure sustained ‘power’ and ‘energy’, though an energy which is nevertheless contained in a continually threatened symphonic structure,  thereby greatly increasing its frisson and tensions. The rhythmic disruptions and fierce dissonances here are reinforced by two sets of timpani, tonight placed, as is now usual practice,  at opposite sides of the orchestra. (Nielsen initially recommended that one set of timpani be placed as near the audience as possible, but most conductors prefer the former mentioned practice.) Tonight the fierce tri-tonal rhythmic patterns in the timpani writing made their full effect. The devastating D minor chord in the timpani, which is torn in a tutti glissando, really ‘sounded’, and the final tonal struggle from the stern driving force of D minor to the coda’s concluding ‘crucial’ tonic E major,  registered fully and dramatically its overwhelming sense of power and resolution.

Gilbert opened the concert with a compelling and expansive reading of Sibelius’s En Saga in the revised 1902 version. En Saga is not much played today, so it was a pleasure to hear it again. It was a work Toscanini used to play occasionally. The LSO were in fine form in every section, particularly horns and woodwind, also the 8 double basses had a pleasing sonority and weight of tone. With such a well integrated string section I am surprised Gilbert did not deploy antiphonal violins? Gilbert chose a relatively broad tempo but invested it with plenty of thrust and forward drive. One quibble: I would like to have heard more from the important bass-drum part, but perhaps Gilbert has a more subtle ear than mine!

Geoff Diggines


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