There are few composers who have recognisable trademarks. Rachmaninov, with his predilection for the sound of bells, is one of that select band. In the finale of his first piano suite, composed in the summer of 1893 and originally entitled Fantaisie-Tableaux, the composer evokes a powerful image of the Kremlin bells ringing out on Easter morning. The four movements, which draw their inspiration from four different poems, including Lord Byron’s Parisina, are not obviously programmatic, but they already reveal a remarkably acute ear for campanological effects, not least in the carillon of the third movement intended to echo the sound of falling tears which, in Tyutchev’s words, “flow like torrents of rain in the depths of an autumn light”. This was one of the poetic elements in the recital given by Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov, and dedicated to the memory of Lord Weidenfeld, a great patron of the arts, which produced magically sensitive playing. In the other movements there was also much to admire: the lines of the gondolier’s song in the first, taut like skeins of silk stretched across a tapestry, or the agogic hesitations in the second that gave this reading an almost improvisatory quality, the notes emerging from nowhere and suddenly taking wing. One might well feel the influence of Chopin, Liszt and Tchaikovsky – who was the dedicatee – but in its atmospheric power and soulful introspection the suite is strongly redolent of the wide open spaces of the composer’s Russian homeland.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta | DG
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

Less than a decade later, Rachmaninov had gone through a severe personal crisis triggered by the failure of his First Symphony but from which, with the help of the hypnotherapist Nicolai Dahl, he recovered. Suddenly teeming with ideas, he completed his Second Piano Concerto and had so much “leftover” material that he was able to compose a second piano suite. This is altogether much more ebullient, a display vehicle for any two keyboard giants. It proved to be a perfect demonstration of Babayan and Trifonov’s synchronicity and the bell-like clarity of their fingerwork. And yet the markings are musically puzzling. The opening alla marcia, admittedly robust in conception, built up such a rapid head of steam that it veered more towards a gallop. Apart from a dreamy central episode the Valse second movement is marked presto: one either sacrifices speed, which was not the case here, or risks showy extroversion. In the third movement both pianists found a welcome degree of inwardness as the music retreated behind layers of voile before building to yet another impassioned climax. The concluding Tarantelle with an inexorable groundswell yielded its expected display of pianistic pyrotechnics.

Sergei Babayan © Christian Steiner
Sergei Babayan
© Christian Steiner
The evening had opened quite differently and less satisfactorily. Schumann’s Op.46 was given a slow, veiled beginning, with both pianists lingering over the succession of rising and falling phrases. The composer himself was disappointed with a piece that originally had been scored for a pair each of pianos and cellos and a single horn and so, at Mendelssohn’s suggestion, it was later recast for two pianos. However, the essential character remained unchanged. As Schumann noted of the variations to a friend, “Their mood is very elegiac and I think I must have been very melancholy when I wrote them.” Babayan and Trifonov have worked together for many years, not only as teacher and pupil, so it was somewhat surprising that their musical partnership in this work did not lead to a more obvious hand-in-glove treatment. The melancholy that was part of Schumann’s invention sounded curiously imposed, not helped at all by Babayan’s all-too-audible vocalisations (a recurring distraction in this recital). The piece needs stronger advocacy than it was given here; the clipped rhythms and over-emphatic phrasing sitting uneasily with moments of introspection.

Nor was the next venture into the German repertory an unmitigated success. To be sure, the opening melody of Schubert’s D940 was voiced with an unaffected tenderness, opening up an image of gentle ripples moving across a vast expanse of water. But very soon both pianists seized the opportunity to break out of the reverie and emphasise the purely bravura moments of display, with Trifonov occasionally forcing the pace in rapid passagework. An impression of waywardness was compounded by the rather brittle sound of the two Fazioli pianos.

To conclude the first half, the partnership chose to play five of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Babayan and Trifonov were more clearly attuned to the mercurial qualities in no.9, provided plenty of sparkle in no.10, demonstrated a high level of coordination in no. 17, captured the capriciousness of no. 18 and were well in command of the gypsy inflections of no. 21.

There was just a single encore, Samuel Barber’s Pas de Deux from his Souvenirs, Op.28. However, it will be Rachmaninov’s bells that linger in the memory.