Review: Daniil Trifonov and Philadelphia Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos 2 and 4

Full disclosure: I am a Trifonov fanboy.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be objective (or at least strive to be). If anything, Trifonov along with a handful of others is a rare thing in the classical music world: a musician with a certain mystique about him. That makes him and his work a fascinating study. And that might also mean it makes reviewing a recording of his a more interesting process.

That accounts for why its taken longer to write this than would normally be the case. I’ve wanted to listen to carefully, not only to the recording (on a variety of different speakers and earphones), but also to how I react to some of the effects this particular set of recordings has on me as I listen. 

The release consists of two concertos and some Rachmaninov arrangements. It’s a great selection and makes complete sense as a whole. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the two concertos. 

Piano Concerto No.2: studious, meticulous and forensic

Of the two concertos on the album, Trifonov’s interpretation of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is the most thought-provoking. It’s a meticulously executed interpretation with a much more limited dynamic range than I’ve ever heard before.

The tempi are restless because the range of different speeds are so broad. Yet, the shifts between those different tempi are breathtakingly efficient. This approach to dynamics and speeds means that a lot of the figurative detail in the piano and orchestral parts can be heard, the kind of detail usually sacrificed in more over-sentimentalised performances. 

The recording combines a rich but not overly-lush backdrop with an intimate capture of the front desk strings meaning we get depth with a bit of texture on the top – in the faster sections that results in a lean kind of urgency. 

The breathtaking moment for me is in the second movement when the upper strings claim the melody from the piano. It is a magical textural moment that makes sense of the comparatively drier ambience and smaller sound heard during the woodwind solos at the beginning of the movement.

This transition from woodwind to strings marks a tipping point for the emotion in the whole concerto – the moment when the subject gains self-confidence. This alone transforms what could easily have been just another recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto into something incredibly powerful.

Piano Concerto No.4: skittish, dark and complex

In comparison to number two, the fourth piano concerto is a much more demanding listen for the newcomer. Paradoxically, I think it’s the reluctant, complex character that Trifonov draws out of the work which actually makes it a performance I want to listen to more and more thus making it more familiar. 

The first movement has a skittish restless quality to it, emphasised by the same attention to dynamic and tempi the Philadelphia gave in the second concerto. The only difference is that this concerto performance is live – that makes the character Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin create all the more remarkable.

That skittishness isn’t alienating – it draws me in. There are references to Gershwin and Debussy in a work that seems as far away from the second concerto as a composer still writing in the same harmonic language could possibly be.

The opening of the second movement illustrates the dramatic shift in harmonic language. Trifonov highlights a sense of ambiguity in what is at its heart a beautifully simple melodic idea. When the strings pick up the melody and drag through endless modulations the restlessness is emphasised further, challenging our assumptions about the crowd-pleaser Rachmaninov and prompting us to see him in a new light.

Comparing this live performance to Rachmaninov’s original with the Philadelphia in 1941, Andsnes, Lugansky or Ashkenazy, makes the character Trifonov is creating more tortured and perhaps even fraught. Is that my imagination? I’m not sure. That might be another way in which the recording has held my attention and demanded so many repeat listens since its release earlier this week.

A measure of the extent to which Trifonov’s technical mastery could be taken for granted can be heard in the phenomenally complex and decorative third movement. If there is to be a sense of resolution in the material it is harder fought, drawing on the same meticulous precision evident throughout the album.

But here more than in any other movement I think there’s a bigger, freer sound, as though the studiousness of the second concerto has now given way to a character who has, by virtue of age and experience, acquired more confidence. 

This release has been both a surprise discovering and will become an important highlight for me come the end of the year. I think its a fascinating thing that yields much. It’s a recording I fully expect to return to in the future. 

Listen to Daniil Trifonov and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Spotify

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