Conductor Neeme Järvi led the New York Philharmonic with pianist Daniil Trifonov in an all-Rachmaninov program. The concert was part of "Rachmaninoff: a Philharmonic Festival" a captivating journey through the life and work of the master composer-pianist.

The concert opened with the composer’s “Russian Theme” from his Six Piano Duets, Op.11. This uncomplicated piece, built on a traditional folk tune, uses repetition to its advantage, layering and developing its songlike melody with striking simplicity. Originally composed for four-handed piano, it was orchestrated by Arkady Leytush with an appropriately austere arrangement. Falling melodic lines passed through different sections of the orchestra, just as the original piece bounced voices between hands at the piano.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

The music was instantly understandable, almost black and white. The clear-cut phrases gave the piece a sense of purity and meaningfulness. The minor textures were stretched out through descending strings, painting a snowy portrait of the composer’s homeland. This stark, early piece of Rachmaninov served as a wonderful introduction to the colorful and complicated Fourth Piano Concerto, which bursts at its seams with lyricism and moodiness. Trifonov brought the music to life with vivid immediacy and passion, playing as though the piano were an extension of his own body, as flexible as a finger, and as familiar as a face. Hunched over the piano, digging into the keys, Trifonov found something unmistakably personal in the music, and this propinquity (not to mention his virtuosic ability) was the hallmark of his performance.

The first movement unfolded like a mosaic, full of color and contrasting textures. A burst of drama broke unto settling sounds of flute and piano before the orchestra pushed ahead into the abrupt ending. Then, a quick look at the audience from maestro Neeme Järvi, who seemed to be playfully asking, “Are you hearing this?”

The Largo second movement opened softly with the solo piano. The strings soon joined in, echoing and supporting the idea. The low brass swelled with stormy turbulence before opening into a surprising, bright chord. The strings and piano continued on, gliding ahead with Rachmaninov’s signature romantic melodies.

The third movement blasted in, charged with a frenetic eagerness to be heard. The piano pounded away like an excited teenager shouting at the top of his lungs. Suddenly, a bit of mischief and the mood changed. Trifonov pecked at each note as if it were a secret, kept under the covers at night. In a single cascade of sound and energy, the piano and the orchestra ended together in an exuberant climax.

Through all of the changing soundscapes, Järvi let the music conduct itself, never strangling the naturally expressive style of the composer. His movements were pointed and precise, expertly guiding – not dictating – the tone.

The second half of the concert featured Rachmaninov’s first Symphony. The upside of this is that it shed light on the personality of a young and determined Rachmaninov. The downside is that the piece isn’t that satisfying.  

Full of dense and ambitious ideas, the symphony pushed and pulled with motivic fragments while textural interruptions prolonged an already head-scratchingly bizarre work. Trumpet calls, chant-like string motifs, plain pizzicato dominant-tonic buttons, and a frenzied fanfare all pushed their way into this early work. Rachmaninov’s main message with this symphony seemed to be, “Listen to all of the brilliant things I can do!”

And that statement wasn’t wrong. It was just a little too eager. The piece doesn’t have the maturity the composer’s most beloved works. It lacked the cohesiveness of the piano concerto. It lacked the honesty of the “Russian Theme.” But it did have an impressive sense of imagination and possibility; foreshadowing the great accomplishments still to come from this hungry composer-pianist.

The concert was a rare study on the personality of Rachmaninov, tracing his artistic growth over time. The New York Philharmonic successfully captured the highlights and shadows of this enterprising composer in cleverly executed musical portraiture.

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