Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Thoroughly Engaging Rachmaninoff at Davies

Pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov continued his season-long residency with the San Francisco Symphony by giving his second recital. The first was the solo performance he gave in the Great Performers Series this past October. Last night he was joined by pianist Sergei Babayan in a program consisting entirely of music for two pianos.

The second half of that program was devoted to the two four-movement suites that Sergei Rachmaninoff composed for two pianos, played in chronological order. The earlier of these, Opus 5, was completed in 1893, not long after Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, where his teacher in free composition was Anton Arensky, who had studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory but was more strongly influenced by the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (It was at the Moscow Conservatory that Rachmaninoff met Alexander Scriabin, and the two formed a close friendship that would last until Scriabin’s death in 1915.) The second suite, Opus 17, was completed in 1901, the year in which Rachmaninoff gave the first performance of his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor.

Two-piano recitals do not take place very often. However, those who seek them out are likely to have had several encounters with Opus 17. My first was a performance by Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich in Paris. As is often the case, this was one of those “all-star” events in which the personalities tended to overshadow the music. Babayan, on the other hand, was Trifonov’s teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music. As a result, last night could not have been a better example of when the music takes priority over the players.

Each movement takes a familiar form (march, waltz, romance, tarantella) as a point of departure. However, Rachmaninoff was never one to shy away from embellishments that are almost (but not quite) thick enough to overshadow the thematic material; and, with two pianos at his disposal, those embellishments became even thicker. Nevertheless, both Babayan and Trifonov had a clear sense of where the thematic notes were in those clouds of embellishment; and both of them consistently established a clear relationship between foreground and background. This was clearly the work of two highly disciplined pianists; but it never short-changed the intense expressiveness that swirls around all those embellishments.

Opus 5, on the other hand, was dominated less by form and more by subjective impressions. The original title was Fantasie (Tableaux); and Rachmaninoff himself described the piece as “a series of musical pictures” (English translation taken from Max Harrison’s biography of Rachmaninoff). The first movement is a barcarolle, followed by what might be called “a night of love.” Love is then followed by tears in the third movement, which give way to a joyous celebration of Easter. The overall rhetoric of these four pieces is more direct than what is encountered in Opus 17; but Babayan and Trifonov still knew how to endow this music with just the right level of expressiveness, attentively shaping every phrase around the “vision” of its respective movement without succumbing to excessiveness. Only in the final movement did Babayan seem to lose track of bringing the Easter hymn (the same one Rimsky-Korsakov quoted in his “Russian Easter” overture) into the foreground; however, Trifonov more than effectively compensated for this lapse when it was his turn to take that theme.

The first half of the program had less of an overall structure beyond visiting the two-piano literature from three centuries. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was there with his K. 448 sonata for two pianos in D major. The nineteenth century was represented by Robert Schumann’s Opus 46 set of variations on an Andante theme. The most recent work on the program was the 1980 revision of Arvo Pärt’s “Pari intervallo.” The original version gave no specification of instrumentation and was one of the first instances of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style. The version for two pianos was published in 2008.

Of these three selections the Mozart was the most entertaining, since it was a delightful instance of give-and-take between two pianists, both capable of invoking the flames of invention even when reading from printed pages. The Pärt offering was the most compelling, since both Babayan and Trifonov could not have been more sensitive to the impact of even the slightest sound in a prevailing silence. Only the Schumann selection was weak, but at least some of that weakness could probably be attributed to the composer venturing into a genre in which he was not particularly comfortable.

The encore selection was the “Dance of the Skomorokhi” (tumblers or clowns) from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden. This is one of those orchestral excerpts that always makes for a lively encore. Last night the account, arranged for two pianos by Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin, was just as lively when interpreted by Babayan and Trifonov.

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