SHORT review. This CD features both Chopin concertos, in Mikhail Pletnev's reorchestrations, plus unaccompanied piano music by Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Mompou, and Barber. One might play the unaccompanied piano pieces differently, but I seriously doubt it's possible to play them better. These are utterly beguiling performances, full of poetry, free of pose, and rendered with unassuming but unmistakable virtuosity. In the concertos Chopin's ardor is limned with both sensuality and the self-consciousness of lost innocence. These are fascinating performances, albeit predominately reflective ones, best appreciated after the midnight hour. During normal waking hours I suspect most listeners, like myself, will prefer Trifonov's virile Chopin concerto performances from 2011-12.
LONGER review. This CD is a collaboration between three exceptional Russian musicians: Daniil Trifonov, a young pianist and composer of seemingly unlimited potential; Trifonov's teacher Sergei Babayan, himself a musician of exceptional calibre; and Babayan's teacher Mikhail Pletnev, a man of many musical hats. Mr. Pletnev took piano gold at the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition; he founded the private Moscow State Symphony Orchestra in the waning days of the Soviet Union; he arranged Prokofiev ballet numbers for piano (these now being played by other fine pianists). Here he has reorchestrated the two Chopin concertos. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra performs them, under Mr. Pletnev's direction, with Trifonov as soloist. The new orchestrations include some notable felicities, especially when lyrical subsidiary themes are first presented. However, some other recordings using the (perhaps touched-up) standard score do a better job of bringing out Chopin's orchestral countermelodies. From Chopin's letters we know he was particularly pleased with these.
Trifonov first garnered attention through his performances of Chopin, and young though he be, this is his third commercial recording of Chopin's opus 11. Oddly, it is the second to feature an arrangement instead of Chopin's orchestration. [2018 addendum: For what it's worth, in this year's Carnegie Hall Perspectives Series, Mr. Trifonov is choosing to perform the two Chopin concertos with reorchestrations by Yevgeny Sharlat rather than by Mr. Pletnev.] Only a rather hard-to-find Polish CD with the Warsaw SO under the estimable Wit uses the standard score. Much easier to find are competition videos on U2b, and thank goodness modern technology captured those moments, for when Trifonov was in his late teens (Chopin's age when he wrote his concerted works), Trifonov was performing the first concerto with seemingly effortless spontaneity, sensitivity, and a winning masculine vigor -- to my taste, the truest (most natural) realizations of the score I've heard in a lifetime of playing and listening to the concertos. Your taste may differ of course.
In the current recording we hear a different Trifonov, no less intense and sensitive but one who has been playing a lot of Rachmaninov in the interim. Here's what I mean by that: Rachmaninov, in his most famous concertos, in the first movements, gives his soloist passagework while the orchestra plays the memorable opening tunes. This texture allows a significant degree of contrast when the second subject arrives because, while it too is lyrical, it unfolds without the subtle, steady drive of accompanying passagework. Trifonov plays these second subjects parlando, in a highly elastic rhythmic space. Getting back to Chopin: in the current recording Trifonov likewise performs the first-movement second themes parlando, in an elastic rhythmic space, as one might expect. But in both Chopin concertos Trifonov now also gives the opening main theme (which in Chopin does not use passagework) the same nocturnelike treatment as the second theme. When serious passagework _does_ arrive with the third, closing theme, it is taken at a quickening tempo all its own. Similar unbalanced proportions of languor and vigor are heard not only in the final piano restatement but also in the central working-out section. The net effect is not that of a tightly knit work but rather that of a loquacious, confessional one; not that of an ardent first love but that of an old love revisited, with copious (albeit high-quality) annotations deriving from later love experiences. It's all pleasurable, but I don't think it's all Chopin. Mr. Trifonov's slow movements seem more reticent than they used to be. The final movements, on the other hand, are bolder -- and perhaps more effective -- than they used to be, bringing these performances to happy conclusions.*
Besides the concertos, the album comprises Chopin's Mozart Variations (1827), Chopin's Rondo in C Major for two pianos (1828); Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu (1834); an extract from Schumann's Carnaval (ca. 1834); a late piece by Tchaikovsky (from op. 72, published 1893); a late piece by Grieg (from op. 73, published ca. 1904); a long-gestating piece by Mompou, his Chopin Variations (1938-57); and the Barber Nocturne (1959). One might play the unaccompanied piano pieces differently, but I seriously doubt it's possible to play them better. These are utterly beguiling performances, full of poetry, free of pose, and rendered with unassuming but unmistakable virtuosity. The Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" were written for piano and orchestra, just like Chopin's opera 13, 14, and 22. They turn up as a piano solo piece in Russian piano competitions and are played that way here. Trifonov plays them with such poetry, panache, and perfect pacing that after the high-energy conclusion it's entirely appropriate to shout, "Hats, off, gentlemen -- two geniuses!" In the Rondo, written the following year, Trifonov and Babayan show how much good music Chopin could pack into a showpiece without venturing into the darker spaces for which he is best remembered. The duo pianists walk a long and treacherous interpretive balance beam and stay on it securely all the way. Trifonov's performance of the Fantasie Impromptu, with its almost muttering first subject, brings out, for me, an unexpected kinship with Chopin's first Scherzo. Schumann's tribute bears many of the qualities we associate with Chopin Nocturnes, but its voicing is less felicitous than Chopin's, and its harmonies have in them as much early Berlioz as early Chopin. Somehow under Trifonov's fingers all these more-or-less subtle infelicities disappear. Brief as it is, the performance is hypnotic. The Tchaikovsky piece starts as a soulful mazurka and ends with passagework like one of same master's opus 51 waltzes. The Grieg homage is a stormy page akin to one of Chopin's passionate preludes. Fine as these recreations are, the young pianist really comes into his own in the Mompou and Barber works. These are harmonically rich, strongly emotional pieces -- like ones Trifonov himself writes -- and they have never sounded better.
* My thoughts on Trifonov's history of Rachmaninov performances are not intended to suggest that Mr. Pletnev had no part in the slow (some would say sluggish) tempos of the Chopin first movements recorded here. To the contrary, I would expect Trifonov to be collaborative as well as exploratory in his music making.
- Audio CD (6 October 2017)
- Number of Discs: 1
- Format: CD
- Label: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON
- Run Time: 140 minutes
- ASIN: B073VDSGCT
- Other Editions: Audio CD | Vinyl
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- #252 in Symphonies