An all-Russian program featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Daniil Trifonov lured Daniel and I to Severance Hall Saturday night, and we were richly rewarded both in terms of the compositions and the performances. At a time when Russia’s government is rightly distrusted, it’s worth remembering President Kennedy’s admonition that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue”, and that Russia’s musical exports have richly benefited music lovers the world over.
The program began with Stravinsky’s Scenes de Ballet – a most unusual work that was commissioned for a mixed program at Ziegfeld Theater in 1944. As with Beethoven, Stravinsky’s work was influenced by goings on in the world – not just musical happenings but world events as well. The optimism of the piece, more harmonically friendly than most others from this composer, reflects the optimism that existed in the United States during that era. While hardly Coplandesque, there is a distinctly American flavor to the suite of dance movements. I doubt Stravinsky would be composing in the same manner if he saw the world as it is today. Thomas brought clarity and an appropriate sense of dance to the performance.
Of Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos, the Second is both the longest and the most demanding: Four sprawling movements, harmonically pungent, truly knuckle-busting in terms of dexterity and stamina required. The work has grown in popularity over the last few decades, although the contrarian composer seems to have had mixed feelings about it (he advised Horowitz to not bother learning the piece, saying “it has too many notes and I don’t like it myself”). Like Prokofiev, Daniil Trifonov has gained a reputation as a musician who marches to the beat of his own drummer, and so it was with Saturday’s performance. Trifonov’s conception of the Concerto was obviously deeply thought-out, and, while not lacking in virtuosity, put musical values first – nothing about this performance was ordinary. The opening movement, an Andantino-Allegretto was taken at an unusually slow, brooding pace. Yet I never had the impression that Trifonov was dragging the tempo, and the buildup of tension in the explosive cadenza was thrilling. The Scherzo was especially Vivace with the parallel figurations executed perfectly. While the Intermezzo was full of snarling menace, the Finale lunged along at a breakneck tempo. Despite the speed, Trifonov was able to maintain clarity during the work’s many rapid-fire repeated notes, carefully weight chords, and inventively mixed inner-voices. Thomas matched the soloist beat for beat, and the orchestra responded with playing that was not merely brilliant, but brilliantly pointed and balanced. The audience was rewarded with an encore from Trifonov: a movement from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet.
“Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky.” – Vladimir Horowitz
Only the most pedantic and provincial will consider Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony to be anything other than what it is: a bona-fide masterpiece. Despite the tragic nature of the Pathétique (a mistranslation of Tchaikovsky’s intended “passionate”), there’s no evidence it was reflective of the state of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time of its composition. He had just returned from a successful tour of the United States, and after years of sniggering from Russia’s intelligentisia about the quality of his compositions (not to mention his personal life), his works were becoming increasingly accepted. Further, Tchaikovsky was assured that the Russian tradition of composing Romantic music within traditional Classical forms would continue via a young composer who’d greatly impressed him: Sergei Rachmaninoff. So, while it was once widely believed that Tchaikovsky committed suicide (and one crackpot theory claimed that his suicide was “ordered” by a “court of honor”), the bulk of evidence now indicates that his death, by cholera, was a the result of a tragically reckless moment where the composer disregarded warnings to boil water as a precaution before drinking it. But the power of the Pathétique Symphony is such that a good performance will leave one thinking that perhaps Tchaikovsky did intend to put himself through days of cholera induced agony before dying. Thomas’ rendition certainly fit that bill, and I observed several in the audience openly weeping at the work’s conclusion. In the preceding three movements, Thomas brought an expert sense of pace, phrasing, and balance to each moment and movement. And, yes, there was a brief burst of applause after the third movement. (I also noticed that Thomas took a sip of water before the final movement – was it intended as symbolism?) As I perused the program book before the concert, I was pleased to see that Eric Sellen’s program notes rightly spanked the Putin regime’s oppressive anti-LGBT laws, noting that since they were enacted, new cases of HIV have skyrocketed.
But for those who’ve read this blog and noted some of my political statements, please remember that I take President Kennedy’s words to heart, and that my criticism is levelled at the Putin regime and his puppets in the United States and elsewhere, not at the people of Russia.