How much do musical ghosts of the past haunt current performances?
No composer casts a longer shadow over the Philadelphia Orchestra than Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) both as a composer and as a performer. He recorded all of his concertos with the orchestra and is now having a history-remade moment with the highly celebrated pianist Daniil Trifonov, who is recording the concertos with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 was recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon on Friday afternoon at the Kimmel Center. The Piano Concerto No. 3 follows Saturday and Sunday.
I’ve heard most Rachmaninoff concerto recordings out there, and on the basis of what I heard Friday, these aren’t going to sound like any of the others. In a good way. Maybe in a great way.
Words like “genius” were tossed around on Friday when Nézet-Séguin was introducing Trifonov, and for pianophiles, that can be code for Glenn Gould-style eccentricity.
Though Trifonov is a string-minded artist, he’s having a solid interpretive progression with the Rachmaninoff concerto. Four years ago he played the opening with slow tempos and weighty sonorities. Rather gothic, in other words. Now, that passage is a tad lighter, with a stronger pulse and a greater sense of integration with what follows.
Rachmaninoff’s own recordings tend to be matter-of-fact, only occasionally resorting to “broken chords” (spelling out a chord rather than playing all notes exactly at once). Trifonov broke chords far more often, creating a larger, more multi-faceted texture.
Tempos were sensible, but flexible enough to create the musical real estate Trifonov needed to find all manner of meaning in this ultra-expressive concerto. Yet he kept himself on a tight enough rein to not get lost in the woods.
The Philadelphia Orchestra accompaniment will be the greater factor that sets the Piano Concerto No. 2 performance apart from the other recordings. Though Nézet-Séguin‘s approach wasn’t like that of Leopold Stokowski’s in the 1920s, it was Stokowskian in its level of engagement, fearlessness around taking chances, and general air of spontaneous freedom.
Some accompaniments act like elaborate frames for the pianist’s art. Nézet-Séguin was a highly-participatory, deeply-engaged equal partner.
In moments such as the orchestral introduction to the second movement, what can seem like Byronic melancholy had a much more current sense of conviction. Rachmaninoff suffered a nervous breakdown prior to this concerto, and you definitely hear that. But he was also a Russian aristocrat, and this performance made you hear that as well.
Experienced together, those qualities felt both inspiring and endearing. So while the Friday performance didn’t take after Rachmaninoff’s own, his created a high bar that was topped by all parties concerned.
The second half was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that longtime music director Eugene Ormandy owned. Even after his 1985 death, the Philadelphia players casually offered guest conductors “the Ormandy interpretation” if they were feeling insecure about their own. That would not be Nézet-Séguin, even though his reading felt like a work in progress and one that maybe got the short end of the rehearsal allotment.
He delighted in the often glossed-over cross rhythms in the piece, and had a whale of a time driving the final movement faster than I’d ever heard it. However, the disparate thematic elements in the third and fourth movements co-existed more than they cohered.
Uncle Eugene, in contrast, made things cohere at any cost. I’m slightly happier hearing Nézet-Séguin getting lost in the details. But then I know this landscape better than I know my own living room and enjoy finding unexplored corners.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performs Bartok and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday April 14 and 15 at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.