Daniil Trifonov

In a post not long ago, I mentioned a Mozart piano concerto—because I was writing about a Beethoven piano concerto, that in C major, Op. 15. “It is many people’s favorite Beethoven piano concerto,” I said. “I understand this very well. I consider it a cousin—a younger cousin—of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503, a towering masterpiece.”

Well, that towering masterpiece was played at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night. At the keyboard was Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian. He is now sporting a beard. An attempt to look older? (It works.) On the podium was Vladimir Jurowski, the Russian conductor, who sports some of the best hair in the business.

And hair, as anyone can tell you, is an integral part of conducting. Or at least of being a conductor.

The beginning of the Mozart concerto was unpromising. In fact, it was downright ugly. The orchestra was not together. And that sound—blunt, coarse, and altogether ugly. I have seldom heard something like this from a highly respected orchestra.

When he came in, Trifonov was not ugly at all. He is a beautiful player. But let me say this: he fussed with the music, no doubt trying to give it “character.” There were hesitations and sudden ritards. There was a variety of colors. Etc. He kept doing things to the music. He was making everything “musical,” as people say.

There is a school of thought—unacknowledged—that thinks Mozart is not good enough, in a way. He is a little boring. He has to be dressed up.

But Trifonov, again, is a beautiful player, and he handled much of the first movement superbly. He demonstrated smooth runs, up and down the keyboard.

Here is an oddity: the tempo in this movement slowed abnormally. Also, Jurowski, on the podium, was unrelentingly punchy.

Trifonov is a fellow who likes to “roll his own,” i.e., compose (and arrange). For this first movement, he fashioned his own cadenza. It plays around with modulation, going from key to key. I had my doubts about this cadenza, when I heard it at David Geffen Hall, but I appreciate this rolling your own.

The middle movement of the concerto is the Andante, and Trifonov et al. played it with unusual strength. This was concert-hall Mozart, not drawing-room Mozart, and none the worse for that. The horn, I’m sorry to say, had a terrible time, as horns do. It is a cruelly exposed instrument.

Jurowski and the orchestra began the third movement, the rondo, with a nice bounce. The right bounce. And Trifonov played rightly with the music. He was lively, amusing, and amused. He was also limpid—a model of limpidity—as we have come to expect from him. What’s more, he threw in an addition or two. What I mean is, he had his own twists on Mozart, and they were in character (with the piece).

Again and again, the audience called Trifonov back, wanting an encore. He did not play one at the drop of a hat (the norm these days). But play one he did, after the audience’s clear request.

He played some music from The Firebird, Stravinsky’s ballet, in the Agosti arrangement, I believe. (Guido Agosti was a pianist—a student of Busoni’s—who lived almost the duration of the twentieth century: 1901 to 1989.) Trifonov had the notes, and there are a lot of them. But he did not quite have the sound. His sound was thin—great for nimble stuff, and not so great for other stuff. Trifonov was missing a big, fat, rounded sound, as another sensational young pianist does. I am thinking of Yuja Wang, one of the nimblest of the nimble.

On the subject of ballets: the Philharmonic played one, after intermission. This was Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, complete. You are more likely to hear it in a suite version. Jurowski and the orchestra were satisfying in this score. Things were together, which is not a given. The conductor’s understanding of the piece proved sound.

At times, the playing was a little blunt for me. I would have liked more sighing, more subtlety—and more of a French shimmer. But there is something to be said for a relatively straightforward approach.

Things turned very French when the flute came in. Ravel’s ballet can resemble a flute concerto, and the Philharmonic’s principal, Robert Langevin, filled the bill. The instrument in his hands was a beguiler. Also aiding success was the concertmaster, Frank Huang, who showed sweet accuracy.

A big aid to success was the chorus, or a combined chorus, really: consisting of the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir, which are directed by Ken Tritle. They sang with composure. Their extended solo moment—i.e., unaccompanied moment—was a highlight of the evening. Jurowski is to be commended for his Robert Shaw act, shaping the moment expertly.

Toward the end of Daphnis et Chloé, I thought, “What a genius, Ravel.” Here is a further thought: he is known for small-scale pieces, being a great miniaturist—a jeweler of a composer. And yet Daphnis et Chloé is a large-scale work, with a long arc, and he is masterly in that, too.

A genius indeed.

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