Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) hosted the latest installment in its Great Performers Series, a solo recital by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. Trifonov made his debut in Davies during two concerts given by the Russian National Orchestra (also through the Great Performers Series) in February of 2013; and the following year he made his SFS debut under the baton of visiting conductor Osmo Vänskä as a Shenson Young Artist. Last night was his recital debut in Davies.
The visit was part of a six-city tour of the United States during which Trifonov has been playing selections from his latest album, Chopin Evocations, released by Deutsche Grammophon at the beginning of this month. The idea behind the album was to juxtapose selected works by Frédéric Chopin with reflections on Chopin’s music by other composers. Those composers included Chopin’s contemporary, Robert Schumann, composers from the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg), and even two composers from the middle of the twentieth century, Federico Mompou and Samuel Barber. (The Barber contribution was actually a homage to John Field, who was one of Chopin’s influences, particularly where the nocturne was concerned.) The album also included Chopin reflecting on another influence in his early Opus 2 set of variations on the seduction duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 opera Don Giovanni. In addition to these pieces, Trifonov’s program concluded with Chopin’s Opus 35 (“Funeral March”) sonata in B-flat minot.
Last night’s performance was thus the realization in concert of an ambitious undertaking. The approach to preparing the program was a bold one, but it was also uneven. The good news is that things got off to a first-rate start with the set of variations that Mompou wrote on the seventh (in A major) of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes. It is more than a little unfortunate that the program book did not allow space for enumerating these twelve variations (one of which was explicitly called “Évocation”) and their tempo markings, although Scott Foglesong’s notes for the program book did call out the fact that the tenth variation appropriated Chopin’s Opus 66 “Fantasie-Impromptu.”
Fortunately, the music itself more than compensated for the words that had been omitted. The attentive listener quickly recognized how many of the variations (even before that tenth one) were making reference to genres associated with Chopin, such as the mazurka and waltz dance forms. Mompou also derived many distinctively different ways of restructuring the notes of the theme itself to arrive at new thematic material that was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Most importantly, it quickly became clear that Mompou had approached the writing of these variations with a playful spirit. The theme itself probably has the lightest rhetorical touch of any of the Opus 28 preludes. Mompou derived any number of different and distinctive ways to play with that light touch. By the time he had progressed through about half of the variations, Trifonov began to let a faint smile show while he was performing, conveying that he clearly “got” that sense of play that seems to have motivated Mompou’s approach to writing variations.
The opening selection was followed by the four short pieces by Schumann, Grieg, Barber, and Tchaikovsky (in that order), played without any pause for applause. Unfortunately, the program sheet did not indicate that Trifonov would play them this way (although Foglesong grouped them in a single section in the program notes). This led to a certain amount of confusion on audience side, particularly among those unfamiliar with the music. This led to uncertainty among those confused as to when the final selection for the first half, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 22 set of variations, composed in 1902 and based on another one of the Opus 28 preludes (the twentieth in C minor), had gotten under way.
That confusion may have been exacerbated by the fact that the Rachmaninoff selection was the weakest part of the first half of the program. Those who know their Rachmaninoff can easily appreciate just how far his craft as a composer had advanced in the thirty-odd years between this set of variations and his Opus 43 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Opus 22 almost comes across as a struggle, both “in the small” at the level of how each variation is shaped and “in the large” with respect to the overall plan of the composition. Both of those logical challenges were met with far more confidence in Opus 43; and last night Opus 22 served only to top off the influenced-by-Chopin theme of the program. (That composition is not included on Trifonov’s recording.)
Unfortunately, the second half showed no signs of things getting better. Like Rachmaninoff’s Opus 22, Chopin’s Opus 2 variations are the product of an early effort. There are signs of wit, which Trifonov managed to convey effectively; but the statement of the theme is preceded by an introduction that is laborious unto an extreme and has absolutely nothing to do with Mozart. It almost seemed as if Chopin wished to delay Mozart’s appearance as long as possible, perhaps under the assumption that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
From that point of view, there was no room for any kind of fondness in Trifonov’s approach to the Opus 35 sonata. The good news was that he could sustain passages of very soft material as well as he could belt out the loud stuff. However, there was no sense of overall rhetorical shape, either within or among the sonata’s four movements. The Funeral March itself was taken at an exaggeratedly slow tempo, providing plenty of time for the informed listener to dwell on how Chopin had written the final movement to flash by like a bolt of lightning. Taken as a whole, the reading was one of self-indulgent rhetoric that allowed no room for either the syntactic details of harmony and counterpoint or an overall logic for the entire sonata.