Orchestra and Trifonov, perfect together

Daniil Trifonov
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Everyone in the Philadelphia Orchestra could assume, even before collaborating with pianist Daniil Trifonov, that he was much more than your typical hot competition winner.

Though his Philadelphia Orchestra performances this week of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 count as his first subscription concerts here, Trifonov seems to be returning to where he has never officially been. He has played the same composer's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though in Saratoga, N.Y. The Kimmel Center recording sessions weren't public, but his recitals in New York and Princeton drew a certain amount of Philadelphia traffic after his well-publicized 2011 first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Competition.

Rachmaninoff famously recorded his major works with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But Trifonov's Rachmaninoff programing here isn't merely a sentimental choice. "One can feel that the music is almost in their genes. ... It comes very effortlessly and very naturally," he said. "That makes the whole music-making experience incredibly exciting. It's a great joy to be coming back."

Choosing the infrequently heard Piano Concerto No. 4 is in keeping with his missionarylike zeal to play a complete Rachmaninoff cycle, which is rare. Though among the most popular composers ever, Rachmaninoff wrote a number of major works that are unknown to the larger public. The Piano Concerto No. 4 has a fraught history of bad reviews and many revisions. Though there's a groundswell opinion that the original version is best, Trifonov prefers the final published edition.

For him, the concerto is more an ensemble piece than other concertos - "it's his most interwoven work" - and shows the composer trading his usual heavy Imperial Russian orchestral brocade for something more dapper and modern. Trifonov is intrigued by how Rachmaninoff kept changing the piece and, in general, changed his own performances of his works significantly over the years, suggesting these monumental-sounding works were always evolving in his mind. Trifonov can discuss minute details of how Rachmaninoff changed notes and tempos.

After all, he shows signs of following in the composer's dual-career footsteps. Initially educated at Moscow's Gnessin School of Music, the Nizhny Novgorod-born Trifonov was officially a student at the Cleveland Institute two years after his Tchaikovsky Competition win (and still meets privately with his Cleveland teacher, Sergei Babayan), while also nurturing composing ambitions. Last year, his First Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was premiered there and repeated in recent weeks with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The jury is still out on that part of Trifonov's life, though writing his own works can't help but have a healthy spillover in his understanding of other composers. In the 19th century, pianists (not just Rachmaninoff) frequently composed their own vehicles. But Trifonov may well go beyond that: He's working on a concerto for Gidon Kremer - a concerto for violin and piano whose main precedent is a childhood work by Mendelssohn. 

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