Rachmaninov: Variations (CD review)

Daniil Trifonov, piano; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Philadelphia Orchestra. DG 00289 479 4970.

While I have no idea if young Russian pianist and composer Daniil Trifonov (b. 1991) will eventually become one of the world's greatest living musicians, I do know that as of today he is surely among the best we have. Since 2010 he has won numerous awards and recorded over half a dozen albums, all to a well-deserved acclaim. In this current recording, he offers a tribute to his "musical idol," Sergei Rachmaninov, with the piano-and-orchestra Paganini Variations, the solo piano Chopin and Corelli Variations, and the pianist's own solo-piano composition, Rachmaniana. They give us a pretty good idea of the man's skills at the keyboard.

Trifonov begins the program with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43, the concertante Rachmaninov wrote in 1934. It seems only appropriate that the Philadelphia Orchestra (under the direction of its current musical director Yannick Nezet-Seguin) accompany the pianist, as the Philadelphia had premiered the work and made the first recording of it (both with the composer himself at the keyboard and under the direction of Leopold Stokowski). Rachmaninov based the score of his Variations on the twenty-fourth of Niccolò Paganini's solo violin Caprices.

Trifonov shows a good deal of flexibility in the variations, handling the faster sections with a dazzling virtuosity. If I have any reservation at all, it's that he doesn't always give the slower sections their due; this is one of the quickest set of variations I've yet to hear. Not that Trifonov doesn't usually infuse the music with a wonderful spark and sparkle; it's just that I wished he were as lyrical throughout the set as he is in, say, Variations 11, 12, and the famous No. 18, where he glides through the notes as gracefully as anyone.

Daniil Trifonov
Whatever, my concerns are short lived when Trifonov produces such fine results in most of the music, effects ranging from heroic to rhapsodic to exciting to downright thrilling. Needless to say, too, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Maestro Nezet-Seguin provide Trifonov with excellent support. The Philadelphia has not always sounded as good as it can sound in too many recordings, but here it is lush and full and wonderfully rich. The ensemble create a near-perfect setting for Rachmaninov's lush, full, rich music.

Next, we find three works for solo piano. The first of these is Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22, written in 1902-03. After that is Trifonov's own short, five-movement suite, Rachmaniana, which the composer-pianist wrote when he was eighteen. Finally, we get Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, written in 1932. The latter score comprises twenty-variations, the theme, an intermezzo, and a coda-finale. Interestingly, it appears that Corelli didn't actually write the theme on which Rachmaninov based his work but borrowed it himself for a set of his own variations. Although Trifonov has, for me, a rather heavy hand in the Chopin, he seems to know his own work very well, indeed, and it flows freely and easily. In terms of playing and interpretation, the Corelli appears somewhere in between the other solo pieces. It's quite satisfying.

Producers Misha Aster and Sid McLauchlan and engineers Tim Martyn and Charles Gagnon recorded the music at the Academy of Arts & Letters, New York City, and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, in March 2015. The resultant sound is quite good, with a warm, realistic presence, a wide dynamic range, and very strong bass impact. In the piano-and-orchestra selections, the piano appears well balanced with the other instruments, not too far out in front and not lost among the other players. As usual with DG recordings, the piano sounds very natural while retaining a good deal of clarity and bloom. The whole affair is still a bit closely miked, though, and a little thick, with a somewhat restricted depth of image. Still, there is a pleasant, lifelike quality to most of the sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa