Monday 13 September 2021

SILVER AGE / Daniil Trifonov / Review


Daniil Trifonov, Piano

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev

DG 483 5331 (2 CDs)


The “Silver Age” was used by impresario Sergei Diaghilev referring to an epoch of musical activity in Russia that lasted from the death of Tchaikovsky to the rise and entrenchment of Soviet socialist realism. That period of creative efflorescence spanned some thirty years, from the mid-1890s through the fin de siecle and First World War to the late 1920s. Prize-winning Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, having served Rachmaninov’s music (mostly the piano concertos) well on Deutsche Grammophon, now turns his attention to the piano works of Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.   


In the notes, he describes “an increasingly fractured, social, political and intellectual environment – a cocktail of different artistic expressions, in agitated interaction.” This handsome double album has a convenient dichotomy: solo works fill up the first disc while concertos occupy the second. The formula works pretty well for continuous listening except for issues of chronology.

Great Russians:
Scriabin, Stravinsky & Prokofiev


Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Chopin devotee before turning into a self-styled mystic and messianic spiritualist. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) began as the folksy disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov, later espousing primitivism (for The Rite of Spring) and neoclassicism. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was the enfant terrible of modernism but eventually settled down to an appeasing lyricism during the Stalin years. Trifonov, for reasons best known to him, somehow gets these dates jumbled up.


The first disc opens and closes with Stravinsky. However one first gets to hear his neoclassical phase with the Serenade in A (1925), a four-movement suite based on antique forms. Its polite sensibilities are however rocked by Prokofiev’s five Sarcasms Op.17 (1912-14), music from his iconoclastic phase, deliberately grotesque and provocative as one can get. Then its a thirty year leap forward to his Sonata No.8 in B flat major (1944), the most lyrical (albeit its fair share of barbed wire and gunfire) of his “War Trilogy” and the dainty Gavotte from the ballet Cinderella (1940-44). Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1910) as transcribed by Guido Agosti makes a suitably sonorous end to the recital, but should this have been the Prokofiev sonata instead? Make no mistake, Trifonov performs these varied works, despite stylistic differences and quirks, to the manner born.


In a logical and natural progession of things, Scriabin’s youthful Piano Concerto in F sharp major (1896), with its Chopinist musings, ought to precede Prokofiev’s brooding yet swashbuckling Piano Concerto No.2 (1913, reconstructed 1923) with Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka (1911) as sandwich filling. From a listener’s stand point, that should have been ideal, but Trifonov however reverses the sequence, opening with Prokofiev before going back in time to Scriabin. In doing so, he seems to be reclaiming the nostalgia of the pre-Bolshevik revolution era, by turning his back on decadance to witness the last hurrah of lush Romanticism.


It is interesting to note that both concertos have not been particularly well-served by DG over the decades. For the Scriabin, there is only the eccentric Antol Ugorski (remember him?) with Pierre Boulez from the late 90s. Trifonov is preferable here. For the Prokofiev, which has enjoyed a renaissance at the turn of the millennium, Trifonov’s rivals are two Chinese pianists: Yundi Li (with Seiji Ozawa) and Yuja Wang (with Gustavo Dudamel). Wang edges this contest simply because her reading generates the greatest excitement.


Make no mistake, Trifonov double-disc album is a worthy addition to any pianophile’s library. He is a commanding artist in his native repertoire, but do have a programming facility ready on your disc player to enjoy the music in a chronological and historically-informed sequence. 

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