Finland Helsinki Festival 2022  – Szymanowski; Tchaikovsky; Brahms: Daniil Trifonov (piano). Music Centre, Helsinki, Finland, 2.9.2022. (GF)
Szymanowski – Piano Sonata No.3, Op.36
Tchaikovsky – Children’s Album, Op.39
Brahms – Piano Sonata No.3, Op.5
Russian born pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has been living in New York for several years now, is generally regarded as one of the most prominent musicians on the international circuit today, and he also has an important legacy of recordings to his name. Due to circumstances unknown to me, he made last-minute changes to the announced programme; only the Tchaikovsky suite remained. But the replacement works were certainly worthy substitutes – and indicate that Trifonov thinks outside the box.
Polish master Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) may not be a household name to the general public in the way that his contemporaries Stravinsky and Bartók are, but he is well established in his native Poland and several of his symphonies, the First Violin Concerto, the Stabat Mater and the opera King Roger at least balance on the edge of the standard repertoire. His style, originally late romantic but later impressionist with some atonal seasoning, is not always so easy to digest, but repeated acquaintance with his works pays dividends, and I believe his Third Piano Sonata should not be too hard a nut to crack. It was composed towards the end of the great war, published in 1917, when Szymanowski was in mid-life. He was 35, had another 20 years to live and was in the midst of his most creative mature period, which came to a bitter end when the family estate was destroyed during the Russian revolution only months later.
The sonata is cast in one continuous movement, but within that frame one can perceive four traditional movements. The opening Presto – after a bird song-like introduction marked Leggiero e delicamente – is dynamic and brilliant and is followed by an elegiac Adagio. The short, vivid third movement is a bubbling scherzo, and the rousing finale is a fugue, marked Scherzando e buffo. It is truly exhilarating, and it indicates that the composer was a happy person. Trifonov’s control of dynamics was masterly, from the storms and thunders of the first movement to the exquisite pianissimos of the Adagio.
With Tchaikovsky we moved into a quite different world. At the beginning of May 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck: ‘It would not be a bad idea to make a small contribution to the stock of children’s musical literature, which is very modest. I want to create a series of little individual pieces just for children, and with an attractive title, like Schumann’s.’ No sooner said than done he set to work and towards the end of July he had finished the 24 pieces, which he dedicated to his nephew Vladimir Davydov. Whether he was able to play all the pieces is hard to say, but the music was printed with pictures for safety’s sake!
Many of the melodies are folksongs, Russian, Italian, Neapolitan, French and German, and many are illustrative. And many are quite simple. But it is fascinating that one of the world’s greatest virtuosos chose to devote twenty minutes of his recital to this repertoire, playing it simply and with great warmth. To my mind this is the essence of musicianship.
Trifonov returned after the interval with one of the really great romantic sonatas: Brahms’s No.3, Op.5. It is the work of a young man, just turned twenty, and it is on a grand scale indeed: five movements did he need to express all his ambiguous feeling. That Beethoven was his idol is well-known, and in this work he candidly unmasks this by quoting the famous ‘Fate’ motif from the Fifth Symphony, not only once but in the first, third and fourth movements. It as though Beethoven’s ghost permeates the whole composition.
In the first movement (Allegro maestoso) Trifonov impresses greatly with his superb control of dynamics. His playing is not the least showy, there are no gestures, no mannerisms without a purpose. The long Andante is played simply and softly, his pianissimos are enchanting, and when the intensity grows gradually to a thundering forte – and then back – he is still the cool engineer, not the muscular hard-hitter. The Scherzo oozes youthful exuberance, mixed with meditative moments, the Intermezzo is intense but low-voiced, and the Rondo finale is jubilant. The ovations afterwards were met with strict politeness and a quick exit. After several curtain calls, quick entrance, down on the piano stool and practically motionless he played Myra Hess’s arrangement of Bach’s ‘Jesu bleibet meine Freude’ – a peaceful end to a grandiose evening!