Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 1
Daniil Trifonov, pn; Valery Gergiev, cond; Mariinsky O
MARIINSKY MAR0530 (SACD 68:32)
Un poco di Chopin.
Der Erlkönig. Frühlingsglaube. Die Forelle. Auf dem Wasser zu
singen. Die Stadt.
When the Mariinsky Theatre’s in-house label was established, I expected that one of its priorities would be to continue the company’s series of Russian opera recordings, initiated, but prematurely terminated, by Philips. That series was rightly acclaimed for making a very worthwhile but comparatively unknown repertoire readily available to a wider audience, and the Mariinsky organization should take responsibility for finishing the job. The most urgent need is for a good modern recording of
Tale of the Tsar Saltan
, one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s major works. Other Rimsky works, as well as the lesser-known operas of Tchaikovsky, especially
, also remain in need of attention. I understand that a recording of the latter opera was actually made but never issued. What we have been given instead, for the most part, is a steady stream of works already well represented in the catalog.
And so, here we go again, with a new recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, for which there are 212 entries currently listed by ArkivMusic. Admittedly, the soloist, Daniil Trifonov, is a highly acclaimed young pianist, a prizewinner in the Chopin and Tchaikovsky competitions, who has received the endorsement of Martha Argerich, the notoriously curmudgeonly Norman Lebrecht, and Anthony Tommasini, the chief critic of the
New York Times
, among others. Another
critic, the veteran James Oestreich, was not so impressed by an October 2011 Carnegie Hall performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto by Trifonov and the Mariinsky Orchestra, finding it alternately “frenetic rather than magisterial” and “more maundering than meditative.” My reaction to the contemporaneous St. Petersburg performance on this disc is more positive, although I have to admit that I am not very familiar with recent recordings of this concerto, those in my collection being mostly older ones, such as Horowitz/Toscanini (RCA or Naxos), Richter/Mravinsky (Melodiya and many reissues on other labels), Cliburn/Kondrashin (RCA), Gilels/Reiner (RCA), Richter/Karajan (DG), and Argerich/Kondrashin (Philips). I find Trifonov’s rapid passagework highly proficient and no more frenetic than that of many other pianists who have tackled this work, if without that extraordinary combination of clarity with tonal weight and solidity exhibited by Gilels, Richter, or Cliburn. His playing is more lyrical and linear, less spiky, and less large-scale than theirs. The broad tempo contrasts in this rendition probably owe a good deal to conductor Gergiev’s influence, since they were also in evidence in his performances of Tchaikovsky symphonies at the Carnegie Hall concerts, but while the tempo shifts in those performances sometimes seemed excessive, I find nothing unjustified in the concerto recording. On the contrary, these contrasts effectively underline the dramatic elements in the work. Favoring a flowing, tonally plush approach rather than a crisp, incisive one, Gergiev also conjures some surging waves of sound in orchestral tuttis. Overall, the performance is sensitively and expressively shaped by both pianist and conductor and offers an ample quota of excitement. The SACD stereo sound is good if not outstanding, emphasizing blend over transparency and offering a natural balance, with the piano less forward and the orchestra more in the picture than is often the case. The standard CD layer is similar but lacks the fullness, spaciousness, and bass presence of the SACD version. I am not able to evaluate multichannel sound.
Cliburn’s legendary 1958 recording offers unsurpassed grandeur and a combination of flawless precision with seeming spontaneity, each note perfectly placed and clearly defined even in the most demanding passages, and it still sounds spectacular, especially in its SACD reissue. The contributions of Horowitz, Gilels, and Richter (in his collaboration with Mravinsky) also remain indispensable. The Trifonov/Gergiev collaboration may not be indispensable, but it is a fine performance and one worth acquiring. It depends on how many recordings of this concerto you want to have.
The remainder of this well-filled disc is occupied by an assortment of solo piano selections. Tchaikovsky’s
Un poco di Chopin
(op. 72/15) is drawn from a set of 18 pieces completed in May 1893, six months before the composer’s death. It represents Tchaikovsky’s effort to write a piece in the style of Chopin, and the imitation is quite persuasive. (The set contains a similar homage to Schumann.) Trifonov’s performance is more successful overall than Viktoria Postnikova’s slightly choppy rendition in her survey of Tchaikovsky’s complete solo piano music (Warner). Following up the imitation Chopin with a late Chopin masterpiece, Trifonov offers an affectingly lyrical performance of the Barcarolle, one that is relatively small-scale and inward in character. Predictably, it is not so commanding or assertively shaped as Horowitz’s 1979-80 concert performance (RCA), nor does it display Maurizio Pollini’s remarkable clarity, unique keyboard touch, and Olympian exaltation (DG). Evgeny Kissin (RCA), Murray Perahia (CBS), and, of course, Artur Rubinstein (RCA) also offer performances with a stronger and more individual profile. Trifonov makes a compelling case for the Liszt transcriptions of Schubert and Schumann songs. There is plenty of virtuosity in his playing, but he avoids display for its own sake. Employing a wide dynamic range, he characterizes each piece effectively, from the violence and terror of
to the quiet tenderness of
. The dark and enigmatic
is especially gripping, while Schumann’s
is eloquently emotive.
In the solo piano selections, the SACD stereo sound is realistic and full range, with impressive bass impact, offering a concert-hall perspective rather than close miking. The conventional CD layer also provides good sound, a bit brighter but less colorful, narrower in perspective, and diminished in bass presence. The accompanying booklet (in Russian, English, French, and German) provides detailed comments on the concerto, a biography of Tchaikovsky, and information about the musicians, but not a word about the other music on the disc.
In the end, I cannot fault Mariinsky for issuing this recording documenting the performances of a rising young pianist, and I must recommend it, but I still wish the label would devote more attention to areas of the repertoire that it is uniquely positioned to address.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
Works on This Recording
Widmung (Schumann) for Piano, S 566 by Franz Liszt
Daniil Trifonov (Piano)
St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
Written: 1848; Weimar, Germany
Erlkönig (Schubert) for Piano, S 558 no 4 by Franz Liszt
Daniil Trifonov (Piano)
St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
Written: 1837-1838; France
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