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Pianist Daniil Trifonov dazzles in National Symphony debut

Written By | Mar 15, 2014

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2014 – The National Symphony Orchestra’s current weekend program offers a sonic spectacular helmed by veteran conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and featuring a pair of marvelous young guest artists—American mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as featured vocalist in Manuel de Falla’s “El amor brujo” (“Love, the Magician”), and young Russian piano phenom Daniil Trifonov as soloist in a riveting performance of Rachmaninoff’s ever-popular “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Op. 43.

Thursday evening’s opening performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall led off with an evocative performance of two of Debussy’s three “Nocturnes,” specifically the languid, somber grey pastel shades of “Nuages” (“Clouds”) and the more sprightly and occasionally outright festive “Fêtes.”

What followed was arguably the main event of this rather lively program, the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody, a series of twenty-four challenging, Romantic variations on a popular theme composed by legendary 19th century violinist Niccolò Paganini. Just 23, it is fair to say that Mr. Trifonov simply astounded Thursday’s audience with what, at least in this critic’s opinion, may have been one of the best-ever performances of this beloved, virtuosic piano masterpiece.

Hunched over the piano keyboard as if carefully guarding its secrets–and his–much as the late Glenn Gould was accustomed to doing, Mr. Trifonov worked his magic quietly in contrast to the flashiness of that multi-talented but much more flamboyant piano showman, Lang-Lang. Both approaches are fine. Lang-Lang is, if anything, more colorful and entertaining with mass appeal for a wider audience. But we can easily predict that Mr. Trifonov, even this early in what we hope will be a long career, will quickly win favor as a genuine connoisseur of the piano.

His tonal shading and phrasing proved beyond exquisite Thursday evening. His seemingly effortless legato was near-perfect. And this, in turn, enabled him to masterfully deploy the cleanest pedaling technique we can ever recall hearing, creating a classically articulated yet still highly Romantic interpretation of the Rhapsody–one that likely would have won even the demanding Rachmaninoff’s admiration and approval.

The NSO complemented Mr. Trifonov’s dazzling performance in kind, performing with remarkable consistency, sensitivity and attention to detail, even in a piece that they, like most orchestras, have performed many times before. As the Rhapsody’s humorous and always surprising trick finale wrapped things up abruptly, the pent-up emotions of the entire audience found release in a rip-roaring and well-deserved standing ovation for all.

Rather unusually, Mr. Trifonov responded by returning to the stage to offer, as an encore, a sprightly but somewhat topical performance of Chopin’s well-known Chopin Waltz No. 1, Op. 18, in E-flat major. The over all tone was a bit too soft and delicate, perhaps channelling the famously frail Polish composer, and the proceedings were somewhat rushed, for us at least. But it mattered little in the end. Mr. Trifonov had already captured the audience’s heart and he could do no wrong at this point. So who are we to to be churlish?

The Rachmaninoff was a tough act to follow, but the NSO still had plenty of energy left for the concert’s second half, leading off with a performance of Manuel de Falla’s somewhat unusual, somewhat neglected “El amor brujo,” an odd amalgam of instrumental music, light opera and dance. By means of these three performing arts, the composer relates the story of a woman named Candelas who, haunted relentlessly by the ghost of her less-than-perfect and recently deceased gypsy lover, longs to break the relentless grip of his spirit to find a new love and a more promising future with the hopeful and far more admirable Candelas.

“Amor’s” initial version was composed only for a small chamber orchestra and failed to gain much traction for the composer. Parts of the work became more popular, however, when the composer revised and re-created the music for a full orchestra. Today, we most often hear portions of it in concert, usually including its best-known number, the famously buzzing, insistent “Ritual Fire Dance.” Even so, we rarely get a chance to see the dance sequences or have an opportunity to hear the mezzo-soprano solos, although Washington’s doughty, eclectic In Series performed the original chamber version of this work with both in a concert last season.

Given the fact that the NSO’s guest conductor this week has been a lifelong champion of music from his native land, it was not particularly surprising that he chose to present Falla’s instrumental version of this work–with mezzo but without the dancer–in this series. And indeed, the performance was a welcome change from the usual concert fare, with its dark, exotic folk music vision standing in stark contrast to the rest of the program.

Though brief, the mezzo-soprano solos are obsessive, psychologically dark and yet insightful. All four were finely interpreted Thursday by American mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, whose deep, burnished bronze low notes seemed to plumb the very depths of despair. Unfortunately, such low notes are often overridden by the full orchestra, and Ms. O’Connor was a bit inaudible in her initial solo excursion. But the orchestra seemed to adapt to the situation, with the final numbers proving more effective.

The NSO closed its program with Respighi’s popular four-part tone poem, “The Pines of Rome.” Similar to its nearest companion, the composer’s “Fountains of Rome,” “Pines” paints a musical portrait of both the landscape and the historical connections associated with four distinct locales in and around the ancient city. Moods vary wildly, from the cheery abandon of children at play (“Pines of the Villa Borghese), to the somber tragedy of early Christianity (“Pines near a catacomb”), to the moonlit magic of an evening landscape (“Pines of the Janiculum”) to the astounding concluding vision of an ancient, triumphal Roman legion marching victorious of the Capitoline Hill (“Pines of the Appian Way.”)

“Pines” is distinguished by its splashy orchestral colors as well as for its early use (in 1924) of electronic special effects–in this case, a “gramophone recording” of a nightingale singing as the final notes of the third musical portrait fade away. Given that it’s now 2014, the NSO’s digital answer to the likely lacquer original chirped sweetly and effectively throughout the hall–a still delightful, understated effect.

The NSO’s performance of “Pines” was at times musically rewarding and at times viscerally exciting, particularly in the final moments of the dramatic finale where the Kennedy Center’s mighty, new organ slips in to add power and majesty to the substantially augmented brass.

The only disappointment in the performance was some unaccountable early fumbling by the horns in the first movement. Thankfully, the majestic sweep of that grand finale made it all easy to forget.

This program repeats Friday and Saturday at the Concert Hall. For tickets and information, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.

Over all Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Rating for Mr. Trifonov: **** (4 stars out of 4 plus perhaps some extra credit)

(Review updated from original abridged release.)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17