Daniil Trifonov; Angela Hewitt; Total Immersion: Gorecki review - fireworks and finesse

Daniil Trifonov
The Guardian

From agile thoroughbred to bucking bronco, gawky puppet to noble athlete, careworn sage to innocent child, Daniil Trifonov’s playing has it all. The young Russian superstar pianist – not another of those you might think, eyes rolling – played to a packed Royal Festival Hall on Thursday as soloist in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s series of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. It was my first encounter with him live. He is, no other word, a phenomenon. Like Rachmaninov, he is both a dazzling pianist and a composer. Born in 1991 in Nizhniy Novgorod, he gave his first concert at eight, apparently losing one of his baby teeth mid-performance. At 24, a multiple international prize-winner, he leaves you struggling for superlatives.

This is the Philharmonia’s 70th-anniversary season. They and their exciting young conductor Rafael Payare, an El Sistema alumnus – a name to watch – played with vigour and warmth. The partnership with Trifonov felt ideal, the orchestra’s enthusiasm for him evident both in their playing and in their smiles. It was, however, Trifonov’s night. He was a fine advocate for Rachmaninov’s little-known Piano Concerto No 4 (1926). Much revised and cut, it was hardly played until a modern edition, published in 2001, gave it fresh life. The shortish piece engages yet puzzles: rich in romantic gesture, fireworks and melody but always swerving from big ideas. By the end, Trifonov looked fired up with enough energy to power a small town, his whole body quivering with exhilaration.

Next came the ever popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which Rachmaninov himself premiered in Baltimore, Maryland in 1934. The first 10 variations, all fast, gave Trifonov every chance to display both his dexterity and the astonishing aural imagination that, above all, sets him apart. In the luscious Variation 18 he favoured simplicity, with not an ounce of indulgence. He sits quite close to the piano, moving from the waist, at times rising from the stool as if balancing on the tips of his fingers. In chordal passages he achieves miraculous layers of sound by – don’t ask me how – using the dominant fingers to bring out the melody with steely power, while the other fingers, softly accompanying, turn to blancmange. If that all sounds too purple, take a look on YouTube.

A short burst of praise for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s latest Total Immersion, an all-day event devoted to the music of Henryk Górecki (1933-2010), best known for the late success, in the 1990s, of his Symphony No 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” (1976). The Polish composer’s stylistic range goes far beyond the slow simplicity of that work. The effect of listening to his output in the concert hall was cumulative and rewarding. No one could have been more surprised than myself. Górecki’s story, and the hard-won musical decisions that resulted, would be interesting to many. It’s a pity Radio 3 now has too rigid a schedule to relay more marginal events such as this live. The chance to listen online is of course valuable, especially for the already converted. But live radio has an inestimable extra value, not least serendipity, the chance to stick with something that catches your ear. Total immersion in the concert hall becomes partial exposure at home, not helped by the iPlayer search engine leading me to Total Sport and Totally Sausage first.
Read the rest of the review here