Banner for this week’s SFS concert (from the SFS home page)
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov concluded his residency with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) with his one appearance with the ensemble as a concerto soloist. The concerto was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 (third) in D minor; and the conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). This was the only work on the second half of the program, which began with Jean Sibelius’ last two completed symphonies, the sixth (Opus 104 in D minor) and the seventh (Opus 105 in C major).
The movie Shine may be the worst thing that ever happened to Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30. It left the impression that the concerto was some sort of monster. If it did not eat pianists raw and spit out the “spare parts” (in idiom I picked in in Singapore), it still had the capacity to leave them mentally deranged. While this may have been the case for a pianist, one is not a statistic, as my father liked to say. Through attentive listening one can certainly appreciate the challenges posed by the piano part; but one can just as well recognize that a well-trained pianist determined to do so can rise to all of the challenges posed by the solo work that Rachmaninoff penned.
Last night it was clear that Trifonov was such a pianist. Furthermore, he made that clear case through a straightforward approach to performing, never showing any signs that his was more like a wrestling match than a concerto performance. Indeed, one could even detect a smile or two when all of those thick waves of embellishment break and the calm sea of a more lyrical passage emerges.
This was the key virtue of the partnership of Trifonov and MTT. Whether it involved piano solos or Rachmaninoff’s lush scoring for a full orchestra, both musicians consistently reminded us that we were there for a concerto performance, rather than a circus act. If the concerto imposed heavier demands than one might encounter elsewhere in the repertoire, Trifonov showed no signs of being fazed by the challenges. If the sonorities were a bit heavy on the lush side at a time when a new generation of composers was focused on emancipating dissonance, those of us on audience side could appreciate that, if Rachmaninoff could not let go of nineteenth-century traditions, he still knew how to shine new lights on them.
Like Rachmaninoff, Sibelius is also often accused of not letting go of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense than in both Opus 104 and Opus 105 the composer is feeling “air from another planet” (to borrow a phrase by Stefan George that Arnold Schoenberg set to music in the final movement of his second string quartet). One often gets the feeling that Sibelius had focused his attention firmly on fragments, almost as if he was determined to break from the prolongations of traditional architectures that arose so frequently during the half century leading up to his two last symphonies. Indeed, the sense of fragmentation is so intense that the first two movements of Opus 104 have final measures that feel almost as if they are breaking off in midstream.
Jean Sibelius in 1923, the year in which he competed his Opus 104 (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Furthermore, in contrast to the lush use of instrumental resources in the earlier symphonies (the second symphony was first performed about seven years before Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30), these last Sibelius symphonies take an ambitiously exploratory approach to instrumental resources. His combinations never go against the grain of the guidelines one tends to learn in orchestration class, but there is frequently a fresh novelty in the sonorities that emerge as different combinations of instruments engage with each other. Furthermore, Opus 105 was organized as a single uninterrupted movement, almost like an orchestral response to Franz Liszt’s effort to organize his only piano sonata in B minor in the same way.
Finally, there is the issue of tonality. One side-effect of Sibelius’ fragmented approach to rhetoric is that one seldom encounters perfect cadences, or, for that matter, many of the secondary cadential tropes. Even when the symphony is divided explicitly into movements, as in Opus 104, there is a sense of ongoing flow, disrupted by sudden breaks, rather than any suggestions of cadence. Some might accuse this of being enigmatic, but I would prefer to call these passages panoramic. (I also object to those who like to appeal to Sibelius’ Finnish background by calling his music “glacial.” The panoramic composer Anton Bruckner is glacial. By comparison, Sibelius goes by at a moderate trot.)
The bottom line is that both Opus 104 and Opus 105 offer the attentive listener any number of possibilities for a journey of discovery; and last night MTT presented himself as a first-rate guide for such journeys.