Friday, April 27, 2012
Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia
August 19, 2012. 6:30pm
•Sonata 3, Op. 23
•Fairy Tale in A minor, Op. 51/2
•Fairy Tale in E flat major, Op. 26/1
•Fairy Tale in B flat minor, Op. 26/2
•Three Dances from The Firebird
•Images, Book 1
•12 Etudes, Op. 25
•Chopin: Etude in C major, op. 10/1
•Chopin: Etude in A minor, op. 10/2
•Chopin: Etude in E major, op. 10/3
•Strauss-Trifonov: Overture to Die Fledermaus
The concert on that evening was sold out. Rather, almost sold out. I was told that there were under 10 seats left at the box office. I don't know how the majority of people there found out about Mr. Trifonov, but my first experience was watching him play the opus 10 Chopin Etudes during the Chicago Piano Day at the CSO's Symphony Center. In that first performance, since there was no program, I thought he was just going to play a handful of varied selections, but it wasn't until he got to around Op. 10/5 that I realized, “oh man, he's going to play them all”. Things I noticed during that performance included original approaches to phrasing, a natural “I play this passage the way that is most relaxed and comfortable to my hand” approach to the technical demands, and a polish that says “every moment here can be phrased this way or that to be made beautiful,” it was a polish that said “I won't just take the easy approach and leave the piece's projection to simply bringing out the melody.” I came away from that performance wanting to hear Mr. Trifonov again.
This concert at Ravinia was almost everything I had hoped for. Almost.
Things I want to hear in a concert are:
1. Interesting programming
2. Strong musicianship from the performers
3. Honesty, integrity, maturity, and a pleasant concert manner
The Scriabin sonata had a full scope of colors as well as many different colors of agitation, if that makes sense. If I had to describe them, I'd say sometimes tumultuous, sometimes murky, other times tempestuous, seismic in other places, and rippling often came to mind. I loved it. I know enough to know that it's only because of Scriabin's writing that those shades of shading are possible, but I also know it takes a sensitive, diligent artist not to steamroll over all those subtleties and actually make such nuances heard.
I didn't like his take on the rhythm of the opening of the sonata. (I've played that piece, so I know what Scriabin wrote on the page.) A lot of people like to take exaggerations of his notated rhythms, and as a composer and as a scrupulous performer, I take offense to that. Mr. Trifonov wasn't the first person to take a dotted-eighth-followed-by-a-sixteenth rhythm and morph it into a series of quarters and crushed apoggiaturas and I'm sure he won't be the last, but he did it on the very first note . Granted, some people might justify that, calling it part of the volando effect for which Scriabin is well known, but I wasn't excited that the first note he played in his recital was a distortion.
His Medtner was technically sound, soulful and suitably volatile when the music called for it. Rhapsody, repose and restrained pathos were all there, and he deserves our thanks for his performance of those pieces.
The Stravinsky-Agosty was fun. I think they were a bit flamboyant and overblown, and they struck me as a very puerile effort to get an audience to jump to their feet. The first one was very intense and impressive, and was what one might call hyperdramatic. The Berceuse was pleasant, but forgettable. The last one was an amusing romp that made me want to laugh out loud. The movement wasn't funny per se, it was just such a dramatic contrast to the serious music making of earlier that the bathos left me with no option but to laugh. Roger Ebert once said that the only thing Mel Brooks didn't do to make us laugh in Blazing Saddles was hit us over the head with a rubber chicken. For me, this over-the-top hedonism was like rubber chicken rain.
His Debussy had the veiled quality that a lot of Debussy playing aspires to, and he gave us our share of muted colors, but I felt his interpretation was lacking in bright colors. I'm not going to call Debussy an impressionist composer, but I know he wanted his music to have variety. Maybe Mr. Trifonov didn't think the music ever got “bright” very much and that's why he never let it become so, but after the three pieces of the suite, I was left feeling a wanting for something. This was especially apparent in the first piece, Reflections in the Water.
In the Chopin etudes, the final section of the concert, I saw outstanding interpretations all the way up until number six, the etude in double thirds in G sharp minor. Until then, his playing was incisive, clear, and extremely accurate with regards to pitches and rhythms. In the etude in thirds, he took the tempo too fast or something, because his thirds weren't clean. That's what the etude is for, and it wasn't there.
I was looking forward to C sharp minor etude; The ending is a taxing test of a person's musicianship, and it has a breathtaking close. His rendering was beautifully proportioned, but when he got to the end, Chopin's anaphora fell flat in his hands.
The G flat etude was delightfully played, full of fire and jubilation. The octave etude that came after it was par.
The Winter Wind etude was fine, but he rushed through the ending and finished with a sloppy scale and a weird, sloppy release of the pedal that made you think he had completely lost control of his faculties. Then he played the C minor etude as though he forgot to give every measure four beats. Through the last 70% of the piece he consistently chopped a little bit off the end of each measure, starting each successive measure ahead of the beat.
I'm sure someone thinks that's exciting, but I found it wearisome, tacky, and a bad surprise. From the moment I first saw him and throughout most of the recital, I thought he was sincere and serious about serious music making. In the last half of those Chopin etudes it seems that he just tossed all that integrity to the wind in favor of generating excitement through the use of cheap tricks. Anyone can do that. Anyone can rush to “create excitement”. Anyone can make ostentatious errors to simulate in-the-heat-of-the-moment “spontaneity”. That's not hard. I expected more of this young man.
In his first encore, he was better. He was back to his earlier good form. In the second (perhaps the hardest of all the etudes) he did what he did in the etude in thirds, he took it too fast, and gave a version of how the right hand was supposed to go. The third etude was melodious and much better–although at this point my attention was changing to concern that he had just played through 15 Chopin etudes, and I was worried that he still had 9 more!
His fourth encore (his own transcription, sadly) can only be described as loud, long and jejune.
I came away from the performance with a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment. He got a standing ovation and played four encores. He would have played more–we could see the stage door open temporarily for him to come back out, and then close again–but he didn't. The stage got rushed by a handful of women (some bearing flowers) who wanted programs signed, and when he came out into the lobby, the crowd of people waiting there can only be described as a mob. Mr. Trifonov whipped that audience into a frenzy that night. From my point of view, based on his program selections and his performances, he did it by catering to the basest human instinct: our love and fear of danger; teetering himself between of failure and success, order and disarray, the people that night got to see a player on the brink of disaster, and they saw him make it out alive. I saw a young man who danced near the edge, while playing it safe. Then I saw that young man fill in the gap with artifice to distract us from the fact that he was playing it safe.
What I don't like is that his antics of the last part of the concert (Chopin etude 6 and beyond) make me question all of his prior performance. Was he being insincere the whole time? Were those beautiful Medtner pieces just a group of artful lies? Could he really have been an honest player then, at that point and then chosen to turn on his Charlatan Button when the time was right? I suppose there can be many competing motives and desires within an artist, and maybe that's what we saw. Maybe this is immaturity manifest, and this is how talented young people are–scrupulous and studious except for when they're being impulsive, careless and brash.
So, how does he score on my three points?
2. For the first half of the concert, up until Op. 25/6, 9.5/10. For the rest of the concert, 5.
3. I have no idea. Can someone be inconsistently sincere? Or consistently insincere?
I don't know what will happen to this young man over the years. I'll watch him again to see what he does. I shouldn't have any problem though, Ravinia will hire him back. They'd be fools not to.