Daniil Trifonov explores the complete Rachmaninov piano concertos
His performances reveal their originality and wealth of invention
Autumn 2018: “Destination Rachmaninov – Departure”, featuring Nos. 2 & 4
Autumn 2019: “Destination Rachmaninov – Arrival”, featuring Nos. 1 & 3
Recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra, known for its close historical connections with the composer and his music
Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
A tribute to Rachmaninov’s pianism – and a voyage of discovery
“I’ve heard most [Rachmaninov] concerto recordings out there, and on the basis of what I heard Friday, these aren’t going to sound like any of the others. In a good way. Maybe in a great way,” review of Second Piano Concerto, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2018.
As a teenager Daniil Trifonov absorbed lessons from the recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov, lessons that fed the creative process of his latest Deutsche Grammophon project. Destination Rachmaninov – Departure is the first of two albums comprising Trifonov’s cycle of the great Russian composer’s piano concertos. Featuring Nos.2 and 4, along with Rachmaninov’s solo piano transcriptions of three movements from Bach’s Violin Partita in E major, the new recording is set for release on 12 October 2018. Together with the second album, Destination Rachmaninov – Arrival (to be released in October 2019), it documents a journey of artistic exploration, one made in company with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
For all his formidable technical mastery and deep love of Rachmaninov’s music, Daniil Trifonov resisted the temptation to learn the composer’s scores before he felt ready to meet their challenges. He began adding Rachmaninov to his repertoire soon after his victory at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition, garnering rave reviews just two years later with revelatory interpretations of the composer’sVariations on a Theme of Chopin and Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Trifonov chose both works for his first studio recording for Deutsche Grammophon – as well as his own Rachmaniana miniatures, written in tribute to Rachmaninov – and crowned the project with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He recorded the Rhapsody with the Philadelphia Orchestra, known for its long-held associations with Rachmaninov and his music. That was three years ago.
Now the pianist presents Destination Rachmaninov – Departure, which couples Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, among the most popular in the concert repertoire, with his Fourth. This will be followed next autumn by the release of Destination Rachmaninov – Arrivals, featuring the First and Third Concertos. Joining Trifonov on both albums are the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“I realised when we first worked together how much respect the Philadelphia players have for Rachmaninov’s music and how much knowledge they have of his idiom,” Trifonov recalls. “It was a terrific idea to record the four concertos with such a great orchestra and a real honour to share the journey with them.” Rachmaninov would have thought the same. Having settled in the United States as an exile from Soviet Russia, he wrote the following to a friend in Moscow: “The best orchestras in America are in Philadelphia (with which I make records) and New York. He who hasn’t heard these can’t know what an orchestra is.”
The Fourth Piano Concerto, which the composer premiered in Philadelphia in 1927, has been overshadowed by its predecessors. Trifonov observes that the work, with its colourful harmonies and angular melodies, is both unusual for Rachmaninov and strikingly forward-looking. “It’s probably my personal favourite of the concertos,” he confesses. “If we sometimes think that Rachmaninov was frozen in time as the world changed around him, the Fourth Concerto strongly contradicts that opinion. There are so many modernist touches to it, in terms of orchestration and jazzy chords in the piano part. The opening feels to me like a train journey. It starts with this impetuous rhythmic momentum, which shows how he approached music as emotion, as an art that exists in time and also in space.”
By contrast, the Second Piano Concerto has always enjoyed enormous popularity, and yet Trifonov is eager to draw attention to the originality of the score, more Classical than Romantic. The work, he explains, was preceded by a three-year period during which its young composer wrote very little. That silence, a reaction to the vitriolic criticism that followed the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, gave way to a great outburst of creativity during the summer of 1900. The Second Concerto was fully drafted by the end of August and received its first performance the following year with Rachmaninov as soloist.
“It feels like all those years he was unable to write flowed into this work,” notes Trifonov. “The structure is among the simplest of his concertos and the tonal direction is always extremely clear. That leads to one big dilemma. We perceive Rachmaninov as a Romantic composer, but with the simplicity found especially in this concerto it is difficult to manage rhythm and rubato. The second movement, for example, while very romantic is at the same time very serene. There is this idea of a steady pulsating rhythm, which is almost like sacred music. And in the finale, where there’s a rare example of fugue in Rachmaninov’s writing, rhythm is one of the driving impulses of the music.”
For Daniil Trifonov, the Second Concerto’s polyphonic writing reflects Rachmaninov’s affinity for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Rachmaninov performed Bach’s English Suite No.2 in A minor as a twelve-year-old Moscow Conservatory student in 1885 and was acclaimed for his elegant playing of the composer’s counterpoint in later life.
Trifonov highlights this connection on his new album by placing Rachmaninov’s solo piano transcriptions of the Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue from Bach’s Violin Partita in E major between the two piano concertos. “He adds his own spices to the music,” observes the pianist. “The Gavotte, for instance, includes his signature harmonic progressions and he also adds allusions to Russian-style melodies to his transcription.”
Since recording the Paganini Rhapsody three years ago, Daniil Trifonov’s partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin has deepened, thanks to their multiple performances of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. Their rehearsal and concert schedule offered time for Trifonov to penetrate the music’s many layers. Nézet-Séguin suggests that the pianist’s insights stem from a rare combination of great power and lightness of touch. “That’s why I think Daniil plays this music so well,” he comments. “He covers both ends of the spectrum and this is a tribute to how Rachmaninov played his own music. It feels as if Daniil is composing this music as he’s playing it. Every concert we gave of these concertos was different; there was always a new story from the first to the last note. This inspired the orchestra’s musicians, who understood that this was about recreating the concertos every time we performed them with Daniil.”
Truly great musicians, adds the conductor, have the ability to evolve over time. Trifonov, he suggests, is exceptional even among the best. “The first time I heard him, I thought, ‘This man is already saying more than most pianists of any era. Yet something tells me he’ll have even more to say in five, ten, twenty years.’ I love to observe how our relationship is about mutual trust. When he plays, I can see he feels he can express himself in the way he wants; that allows me to… I wouldn’t say ‘provoke’, but exchange or give in one phrase a proposition that will be taken up by him.”
Rachmaninov first performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its then Music Director Leopold Stokowski in 1913, as soloist in his own Third Piano Concerto. He returned many times as pianist and conductor before his death thirty years later, developing a rapport with the Philadelphia players that remains lodged deep in the orchestra’s collective memory. “We start a rehearsal of Rachmaninov and there’s something in the air,” notes Nézet-Séguin. “It’s a mixture of tradition, pride, understanding and value. The Philadelphia sound matches the generosity of spirit of Rachmaninov’s music. You cannot perform it if you try to put everything in a tight box; it needs to breathe, to ebb and flow naturally.”
Destination Rachmaninov – Departure offers a fresh look at works all too easily stamped with the labels of received opinion. Destination Rachmaninov – Arrivals, set for release next year, will conclude Daniil Trifonov’s voyage of discovery. As he points out, however, “Rachmaninov never stopped searching for new ideas, so his concertos brought new ideas to the genre of which he was such a master. There isn’t really an end to the journey. It’s more about constant exploration.”