Daniil Trifonov: Chopin Evocations
Daniil Trifonov’s last release was an impressive and exhilarating two-disc programme of Liszt’s Studies (10/16). It was an Editor’s Choice and shortlisted for this year’s Gramophone Awards. The only prize his latest recording will win is an egg from a curate – and a fairly hard-boiled one at that. There are already commercial releases of Trifonov in both Chopin concertos (No 1 on Dux, No 2 on Medici TV) and goodness knows how many on the DG label alone, but of all the dozens of versions of Op 21 I have listened to over the years, this latest is one of the most lacklustre. Both the orchestral and piano expositions seem devoid of purpose. This, however, is not just any orchestral exposition. This is the world premiere of the re-orchestration of the concerto by Mikhail Pletnev, one of several who, over the years, have felt that young master Chopin needs a lesson in how to use the resources available to the best advantage.
Having raised an eyebrow to the clarinet (instead of strings) as the leading opening voice, the limp first movement crawls home at 15'41" (the average is between 13'00" and 13'30") with little acknowledgement of Chopin’s maestoso. This and several other moments make this performance hors de combat as a recommended recording. Listen to the horn note at 12'24" sounding like a bedside alarm clock, or the piano’s two bars of dolcissimo and legatissimo semiquavers in the slow movement (7'09") resembling the drips from a partially turned-off tap. The brillante passage after the cor de signal measures in the finale help redeem proceedings.
It is with this latter spirit that Trifonov approaches the Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, a rare opportunity to hear this played as a solo and quite possibly the finest ever committed to disc. With the orchestral interludes played on the piano, it turns the piece into a kind of ‘Pictures at a Chopin Exhibition’. The way in which Trifonov executes Var 3 and the contrasting touch and dynamics he brings to the repeat is quite masterly. Some Chopin-inspired morceaux follow – inventive programming – but when you hear two of them (the Grieg and Tchaikovsky pieces) played by Jonathan Plowright on his ‘Hommage à Chopin’ disc (Hyperion, 4/10) you wonder who has the stronger affinity with this music.
On disc 2, after a tremendously vivacious account of the Rondo for two pianos with his erstwhile teacher Sergei Babayan, Trifonov is once more in thrall to Pletnev and his version of Chopin. The opening of the re-orchestrated E minor Concerto has all the energy of someone dragging themselves off the sofa after a heavy lunch. While there are passages thereafter where everything threatens to come to a standstill, things eventually pick up, just as they do in the F minor, and normal service is pretty much resumed. But then compare Trifonov’s reverential Romance (11'06", against Argerich’s 9'24" and Kissin’s 8'26"), in which every note is squeezed dry, with Josef Hofmann’s improvisatory ease and imagination (live in 1936). By and large, Pletnev’s scoring is unobtrusive and does not overly distract, though the woodwind ensemble at the opening of the finale sounds like Chopin hijacked by Tchaikovsky. One thing is constant throughout and that is the sublimely wonderful sound Trifonov produces right through the register. When allied to the clarity and evenness of his fast passagework (2'09" to 4'52" in the finale, for instance) it makes one regret even more the exaggerations and excesses heard elsewhere.
The programme ends in the more intimate world of Mompou’s Chopin Variations (the A major Prelude from Op 28), a consummate, unfussy reading, unlike the remarkably self-indulgent central section of the Fantaisie-impromptu (Op 66, not Op 6 as labelled) quoted in Mompou’s Var 10 and which concludes these evocations.