DANIIL TRIFONOV LEADS THE VSO FORWARD INTO ITS 101ST SEASON
Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano); Daniil Trifonov (piano); VSO/ Otto Tausk: Works by Simms, Schubert, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Orpheum, September 20 and 27, 2019.
Superstar 28-year-old pianist Daniil Trifonov was the big draw as the VSO moved into its first concerts of its next 100 years. I am sure no one was disappointed with the lovely, clean touch, bristling intelligence and commanding bravura the pianist brought to Rachmaninoff’s towering 3rd Piano Concerto, except that the orchestra had some difficulties in keeping up with him. The preceding Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead and Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy saw Maestro Tausk and the orchestra on surer footing, yielding performances of strength and cohesion. The star of the preceding concert was probably soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, drawing out ravishing legato lines in orchestrations of Schubert’s lieder. The closing Mahler’s First Symphony was definitely a crowd-pleaser, but was otherwise rather small scale and wanting in both lyrical penetration and Mahlerian ardour.
It goes without saying that Daniil Trifonov is a wonderful young pianist, and one can only be impressed with the way he sees the line of the music, and negotiates it with cunning variety and disarming technical ease. As we speak, he is just releasing Rach 3 in the final installment of his ‘Destination Rachmaninoff’ series for Deutsche Grammophon. The current performance of this concerto gave a good sample of Trifonov’s finely-chiseled approach to the composer, one which often substitutes a refinement and intellectual complexity for romantic padding, but is always aware of rhythmic stride of the composer and the burning immediacy of his emotional fire. The difficulty on this occasion, however, was the reticence of the orchestra. Wind balances with the piano were not very secure from outset and the string lines that cut and nourish the piano line were too vague to set the underlying lyrical flow in place. Thus, there was very little structural seating as the first movement developed. Very quickly, the massive cadenza was upon us, where Trifonov brought forth all the spectacular energy and passion that many came to see, fearlessly combining brusque, insistent chords with virtuoso flights of fancy – all at an incredible speed. But this still seemed light in meaning and emotional resonance, possibly because it was not motivated from an earlier repose. In fact, the pianist so often had to will the movement’s development forward that he did not have much time to settle into a lyrical calm or mine the deeper half-lights.
The strings only partially unearthed the deep melancholy at the opening of the slow movement but Trifonov’s concentration and depth of utterance later on were commanding. There can be little doubt that the pianist keenly understands the force of the composer’s pain and struggle. The opening of the finale amply demonstrated just how much playfulness and ingenuity there is in the pianist’s art, twisting and turning on a moment’s notice, mixing brusqueness of attack with lyrical charm. The zeal and confident assertion of his final triumphal ascent were quite electric. Unfortunately, the orchestra seemed to get behind the pianist at the end of both movements, which limited impact to a degree. I do appreciate that Trifonov’s capricious rubato and charges of adrenalin can be a little difficult for an orchestra to follow, even if it adds spontaneity to the whole. Overall, this reading turned out as very much a work in progress, with enough scintillating moments from the pianist to send most patrons home happy but only fitfully in touch with the work’s full emotional radiance.
The combination of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead and Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy was a well-chosen appetizer to the concerto, and Maestro Tausk and the orchestra were much more on their mettle. Both works, written contemporaneously in 1908, have a strong extra-musical inspiration and cultivate the richest emotional expression. The former was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name and was actually recorded early on by the composer and championed later by Koussevitsky, Reiner and Svetlanov. Tausk may have foregone some of the more mysterious Russian mists at the opening of the Isle and moved a little quickly, but he gave a cogent and unified account of the tone poem, increasing the tension from the passionate viola/cello theme in the middle of the movement and building to a scintillating climax at the end. The orchestral playing was attentive and strong. Overall, this was better Rachmaninoff than Tausk’s previous efforts with the Symphonic Dances (too willful) and his Second Symphony (too dispersed).
It was instructive to hear the Scriabin right next to the Rachmaninoff, for their feeling was quite different in spite of their heightened emotional reach. I have increasingly come to enjoy a broadly New Vienna approach to the opening atonal fragments of The Poem of Ecstasy, acerbic and slightly dissociated, before the work moves to its richer chromatic textures and passionate outbursts. Maestro Tausk, however, went on a rather different path: the opening fragments hinted at a French delicacy, and the work developed with some of the animation and sensual allure of Debussy’s Images. The post-Wagnerian fabric seemingly built through the filter of Chausson, also involving a Gallic excitability and cheekiness in the brass that occasionally reminded me of Roussel. Larry Knopp negotiated the famous solo trumpet line well, and both the middle and closing climaxes had weight and amplitude. I was actually surprised how well this performance cohered, offering a slightly different take on the composer’s sensuality. Still, one wonders how much of a French accent the work should have. There is no doubt that Debussy had some influence on Scriabin, and the composer did complete the work in his brief 3-year sojourn in Paris from 1906 to 1908. And the score is rife with markings in French and has an alternative French title. There is not much evidence beyond this: the work was premiered in New York, and the composer never lived in Paris again.
The previous concert – the official season opener – turned out to be sort of an exploration in innocence. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka had not sung Schubert lieder before, Otto Tausk had limited experience in Mahler, and Newfoundland composer Bekah Simms, just in her 20’s, contributed her very first commissioned orchestral work. Hearing the world premiere of Simms’ Is it now? had some intrigue, but the composition did not get very far in the scheme of things, having relatively predictable changes in orchestration, and a naiveté in some of the wind and brass modulations. After a bevy of slicing, acerbic strings, the brass instates slightly longer legato statements, only to become irritable and idiosyncratic; then, modulated wind lines intermediate the return to the opening slicing strings. Simms is a keen student of the psychological state of ‘anxiety’, and I admit I felt some of that. A striking moment came in one of the declamatory brass sequences in the middle where, suddenly, the imposing chords of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky popped out of the texture.
Adrianne Pieczonka’s traversal of six Schubert lieder with orchestra was likely the highlight of this evening, showing off her enchanting soprano voice and vocal control. One recalls that Claudio Abbado championed these orchestral arrangements (by composers from Berlioz to Britten), which led to his recording with Anne Sophie van Otter and Thomas Quasthoff. Alan Gilbert has shown interest more recently. One must get used to the fact that the songs can often lack the expressive immediacy or intimacy of their original versions with piano, since the orchestra is a bulkier, less flexible medium. Expression tends to be smoother and more generalized, the songs sometimes having more the feeling of a long-spun ballad or an extract from a dramatic cantata.
Overall, I admired the cultivated elegance of Pieczonka’s long legato lines, her emotional poignancy and her abilities as a story teller. I also liked the fact that she mainly avoided operatic postures. Nonetheless, I would probably have liked sharper edges in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ (Reger) and more intensity (rather than vocal beauty) in ‘Der Wegweiser’(Webern). Sometimes it seemed that the consistency of her vocal postures did not serve the differences in the texts that well, leaving some of the range in the composer’s emotional world unexplored. Britten’s use of the clarinet in ‘Die Forelle’ was charming, taking me close to ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’. The closing ‘Erlkönig’ gave an opportunity for more dynamic variety, and operatic postures are less out of place. This was not a hair-raising traversal, but it exhibited good dramatic sense and the singer was impressive in moving to the lighter, quick passages with a fine white tone and consummate agility. I was actually not very taken by Berlioz’s orchestration, though it definitely occurred to me just how fine a Berlioz singer the soprano might be. In any event, this was all rewarding, and I would like to hear Pieczonka perform these with piano too.
Otto Tausk finished the concert with a rather bare-bones Mahler 1, which satisfied the opening-night crowd, but was otherwise lacking in colour and a natural lyrical absorption. Even early on, one recognized that the orchestra had too little weight and texture for a Mahler ‘sound’ and that both winds and the bottom strings (especially the cellos) were too polite: they required considerably more ardour, projection and pungency. The undercurrent of mystery and foreboding at the opening (and in the ‘harp’ episode later on) were not etched very strongly: insufficient attention was paid to the Mahlerian axiom that ’Nature offers bounty but it is also cruel and unforgiving’. There was also relatively little coaxing charm as the ‘wayfarer’ motive took flight: the composer’s sly rhythmic idiosyncrasies were played down. In fact, the violin phrasing was sufficiently flat and conventional that the climaxes of the movement seemed to come off with the sort of celebratory joy one finds in Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony – not exactly what Mahler intended! Throughout, the string sforzandi needed to be etched much more forcefully. Strangely, the last timpani note of the movement was given a forceful thwack of finality, rather undermining Mahler’s cheeky innovation.
The Ländler had good energy but was again somewhat flat in projection; it needed more bounce and elevation to project its rustic charm. The abrupt accelerando in the opening bars of the cello line struck me as unprecedented. A major concern was the transition into the Trio, which seemed too practiced to allow much lyrical spontaneity, something which I also felt about the ‘klezmer’ portion of the following movement, which came off as slightly precious. The Frère Jacques theme for the solo double bass was floated out atmospherically with an almost Debussy-like suspension, but I’m not sure it shouldn’t have been more withdrawn and astringent. Tausk took both the beginning and end of the finale at a very strong clip, which slightly glamourized each and robbed them of their dramatic weight. Overall, the finale seemed too sectionalized, not sufficiently cataclysmic, and the tender, aching string motive later on was again overprepared and sentimentalized. Perhaps the conductor and orchestra should have waited a bit on this.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019