Blazing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich’s enigmatic final symphony from Nelsons, BSO and Trifonov

April 26, 2019 at 12:13 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Daniil Trifonov performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Daniil Trifonov performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

In the summer of 2011, Daniil Trifonov prepared to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 for the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. But feeling that the work was beyond his interpretive skills at the time, he offered Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 instead. Though the understated choice ultimately won him the Gold Medal, he never lost interest in Rachmaninoff’s blazing score. Four years later, as it was becoming a fixture in his repertoire, he admitted, “I needed more time with other Rachmaninoff music before I could understand his Third Concerto.”

The Russian pianist has long since mastered the technical landmines of this work, widely considered the most challenging concerto in existence. Yet there was much more to Trifonov’s reading than flash and fireworks and, in Thursday night’s performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons, he found all of the sublimity hidden within the concerto’s finger-twisting lines.

Trifonov is a living extension of the legendary Russian piano school, with a combination of spellbinding technique and thoughtful musicianship that probes into every phrase. His octave leaps, crisp runs, and cascading arpeggios are dramatic without being overblown, and every moment of technical display seems to serve a wider musical purpose.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, he approached the Third Piano Concerto with the insight of a seasoned veteran. The simple opening theme sang gently in his rendering before growing into trickling runs and bold octaves. The lyrical passages of the outer movements, which he shaded with pearly tone, coiled into soft melodic arcs.

The second movement’s variations also showcased the pianist in a series of poetic musical moments. The final waltz variation—swift and elegant—coursed vibrantly.

In the finale, Trifonov navigated the emotional contrasts of Rachmaninoff’s music with panache and bravura. The concluding pages of the score, which shift wildly between sweeping melodies and episodes of roiling power, found him pouring all of his pent-up energy onto the keyboard. As Nelsons pushed the tempo, Trifonov unleashed a torrent of figures in the coda, his lower register adding depth and weight to the sound. His cadenzas here and in the first movement featured him in a balance between dazzling runs and delicate passages.

Throughout, Nelsons conjured a lush and detail-rich accompaniment attuned to Trifonov’s dynamic performance. Strings in the second movement wrapped the pianist’s phrases in dusky sonority, and solo oboe and horns brought atmosphere to their distant, beckoning calls.

The ovation for Trifonov was immediate, and he rewarded the audience with a tender encore of the Andante sognando movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, which came after intermission, delivered its own distinct moments of intimacy and spectacle.

Shostakovich’s final symphony dates from 1971, a time when illness and a second heart attack turned the composer’s thoughts towards his own mortality. While his Symphony No. 14 focused upon the tragedies of untimely death, Symphony No. 15 seems to deal with the subject through sly humor and sarcasm.

The work also finds Shostakovich looking backwards in musical history as quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture ­and allusions to the fate motive from Wagner’s Ring Cycle convey dark wit and prevailing doom.

Much of this symphony is introspective. Though scored for large orchestra, it features small groups of instruments in often unusual combinations. Flute and oboe duets bring an impish glee to the outer movements. Elsewhere, brasses exchange resonant chorales with a solo cello’s silvery lines. And trombone and tuba unfold a funereal march that eventually encompasses the full orchestra.

Nelsons’ firm direction and keen eye to detail resulted in a performance marked by extremes of tension and release. Climactic points in the outer movements erupted violently, with the BSO brass supplying statements of hulking strength.

In the many sparsely scored sections, Nelsons led with broad tempos that allowed each individual line to ring clearly. Blaise Déjardin’s cello solo in the second movement took on a singing and melancholy grace. Elizabeth Rowe’s flute motive in the symphony’s opening set a humorous tone, which resulted in subtle laughter from the audience as trumpeter Thomas Rolfs played the joke-like quotation from William Tell. The brief Scherzo bounded just as comically.

Humor turned to desolation in the finale, where Nelsons shaped the weighty marches and quotations of Wagner’s motif in grand statements. The closing measures, with their gentle rumble of percussion and smooth, consonant harmonies, brought an uneasy serenity. Humor, the music seems to suggest, fails to provide lasting comfort as one stares into death’s abyss.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200


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2 Responses to “Blazing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich’s enigmatic final symphony from Nelsons, BSO and Trifonov”

  1. Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 5:48 pm by HL

    Amazing pianist but the performance had many many disconnects between the pianist and the orchestra. I At least for Saturday’s concert. After listening to and reading comments of his rach 3 performance with the orchestre philharmonique de radio france in 2015, it seems like this is a common theme. I think it was just extremely hard for the orchestra to follow him.

  2. Posted Jun 22, 2019 at 6:15 pm by Marty

    I’ve listened to the 2015 version a multitude of times & have never felt a disconnect between Mr.Trifonov/the conductor/the orchestra…it is sublime….so if his performance w/BSO/Nelsons was similar….OH!!…to have been there!!

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