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.”
January 29, 2018 - Daniil Trifonov wins Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo
"Congratulations to Daniil Trifonov on his first and truly well-deserved Grammy for „Transcendental“!
It is fabulous how this album literally transcends the extreme technical difficulties of Liszt’s music – insurmountable for many pianists – and brings out the lyricism of the texture.
„We feel privileged and inspired working with Daniil and look forward to more signature albums that are in the process of being recorded and released.
Many thanks also to the wonderful and experienced producer team with Ute Fesquet, Sid McLauchlan and Misha Aster.
„The mere fact that two DG pianists of different generations – also Murray Perahia – were shortlisted in the classical instrumental solo category illustrates the artistic strength of our piano roster that we are currently introducing to a wider public with our Piano Masters campaign."
(Dr. Clemens Trautmann, President Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniil Trifonov’s latest Deutsche Grammophon album captures the magic of Chopin’s music and traces its influence through the works of five other composers. Chopin Evocations, set for international release on 6 October 2017, presents two and a half hours of music performed by today’s top young classical pianist. Trifonov, the current Gramophone Artist of the Year, offers Chopin’s two piano concertos and a selection of some of his earliest and latest solo works together with tributes to him by Grieg, Mompou, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Barber. The double-disc set includes a collaboration with Trifonov’s fellow pianist-composer Mikhail Pletnev, who conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in his freshly re-orchestrated editions of Chopin’s piano concertos. Trifonov will perform some of these works during his 2017-18 tour of Europe and North America.
Daniil Trifonov first came into contact with Chopin’s music while studying at Moscow’s Gnessin Music School, Russia’s leading school for prodigiously talented children, and went on to develop his interpretations under the care of Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “Chopin is one of the world’s most beloved composers – the poetry of his music goes straight to the heart and requires no justification,” the pianist observes. “But in a sense, the genius of Chopin becomes even more clear in the context of those who influenced him and those who have been inspired by him.”
In embracing pieces by some of those inspired by the composer’s artistic legacy, Chopin Evocations spans more than a century of music history. The album ranges from the dream-like meditation of “Chopin” from Schumann’s Carnaval to the virtuoso fireworks of Grieg’s Etude Op. 73 No. 5 (Hommage à Chopin) and Chopin’s own Rondo in C major for two pianos Op. 73, the latter recorded with Trifonov’s teacher and regular duo partner, Sergei Babayan. Trifonov chose to record the solo piano version of Chopin’s early Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” Op. 2, the work that prompted Schumann to declare, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” The album closes with the celebrated Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66.
Trifonov was recently hailed by Alex Ross in The New Yorker for the rare attributes that set him apart from mere mortals of the keyboard world: “monstrous technique and lustrous tone”. Those qualities, present in abundance throughout Chopin Evocations, are ideally employed in the interpretation of Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The Catalan composer’s score is based on Chopin’s Prelude in A major Op. 28 No. 7, and its tenth variation, “Evocation” – which quotes a haunting melody from the Fantaisie-Impromptu – lends its name to this new album. “Mompou meditates upon the simplest Chopin melody,” observes Trifonov. “He explores each aspect of its rhythmic, harmonic and expressive potential, in relation to itself and in relation to Chopin’s overall musical significance.” The spirit of exploration drove Trifonov to set Chopin within the wider context of compositions inspired by his music. The pianist’s preparation process involved detailed study of works new to his repertoire, including the Barber, Grieg and Mompou pieces, and allowed time for him to form profound connections with each of them.
Before signing as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist in 2013, Daniil Trifonov recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor in a version for piano and string orchestra. He returned to the work for Chopin Evocations and decided to couple it with its earlier companion piece, published as the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Trifonov’s new album offers the world premiere recordings of both concertos in Mikhail Pletnev’s orchestrations. The partnership between Trifonov and Grammy Award-winner Pletnev grew from their shared experiences. They both won Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 21, while Pletnev taught Trifonov’s teacher, Sergei Babayan in the early 1980s. “That makes him a bit like my musical forefather,” notes Trifonov.
Mikhail Pletnev addressed the notorious problems of instrumental balance and coherence in the published scores of Chopin’s piano concertos. He sought to create greater clarity and bring a chamber-like feel to their instrumentation. The results, as conveyed here by the dynamic and responsive playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, are transformative. “The new orchestral transparency allows the pianist greater spontaneity and sensitive engagement with the other voices,” explains Trifonov. “The concertos are more massive in terms of length and instrumentation than anything else Chopin ever wrote. He knew and admired the piano concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, yet his interest in the form was not in the Classical balance between soloist and orchestra but in the concerto as a lyrical epic form, like a Delacroix painting, providing a huge tableau for his musical expression.”