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Osmo Vänskä and Daniil Trifonov interpret Rachmaninoff with stunning nuance

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The conductor really does make all the difference. The last time pianist Daniil Trifonov visited Davies Symphony Hall, he performed in two concerts by the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, banging his way through Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 concerto in B-flat minor (the first) on the first night and Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 concerto in C major (the third) on the second. Yesterday afternoon, returning to Davies to perform with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), Trifonov demonstrated a far more nuanced approach to his keyboard work; and one may well assume that guest conductor Osmo Vänskä had a strong hand in the results than ensued.

Ironically, the “concerto” portion of the program consisted of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 rhapsody on the last of the 24 caprices in Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1, a caprice that Paganini himself had composed as a set of variations. All to often, Opus 43 gives the impression of involving nothing more that a brazen exhibition of keyboard virtuosity, displayed against a background of blatant crash-bang orchestral writing. However, working as a perfectly well-paired team, Vänskä and Trifonov made it clear that there was far more to this music than banal trivialities.

Trifonov fired the first shot, so to speak, following Vänskä’s vigorous opening orchestral measures with a delicacy that immediately declared that this theme was too familiar to be burdened with overstatement. In that vein he glided across the keyboard as the variations unfolded, always attentive to the need for precision and always appreciating that such precision can only be recognized through a restrained delivery. Meanwhile, up on the podium, Vänskä’s balance of the ensemble was disclosing instrumental colors that are usually washed over by the razzle-dazzle from the piano and the aggressive punctuations from the percussion section. At long last Davies was rewarding the attentive listener with an account of this warhorse with almost unimaginable diverse palette of sonorities and instrumental interplay, all seasoned with a generous supply of wit. (Did anyone ever see somber old Rachmaninoff crack a smile?)

The rest of the program benefitted similarly from Vänskä’s clarity of expression and nuanced approach to detail. Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso keyboard showcase was balanced, on the other side of the intermission, by the bare-bones abstractions of Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 “Symphonies of Wind Instruments.” As Michael Steinberg’s notes in the program book reminded the reader, this was not Stravinsky exploring symphonic forms. Rather, he drew upon the literal meaning of the word “symphony,” which is “sounding together,” and invoked the plural to account for how the music is organized around brief motifs exploring different combinations of instruments from the woodwind and brass sections. By abandoning the usual ternary tradition of exposition, development, and recapitulation, Stravinsky, instead, provided the listener with the auditory analog of a exhibition of etchings drawn with meticulous detail.

As might be expected, Vänskä relied upon this “progression of sonorities” to provide the basic logic that leads the listener from beginning to end. Each motif required its own highly individual balance of instruments, and Vänskä saw to it that the SFS musicians always found that balance. What emerged gave the effect of a conversation among speakers, each of whose voices had its own idiosyncratic qualities. What is particularly fascinating is that there is no conventional sense of resolution when the last of those speakers has said his/her piece. There is no strong cadence to establish any “sense of an ending;” yet, under Vänskä’s sure guidance, those of us on audience side recognized when we had come to that ending.

Vänskä framed his program with two pieces by his Finnish forebear, Jean Sibelius. The opening selection was the Opus 55 tone poem “Night Ride and Sunrise;” and the program concluded with the Opus 104 (sixth) symphony. The “night ride” is depicted through repetition so incessant that one might think that Sibelius was foreshadowing Philip Glass; and the emergence of the dawn light is similarly drawn out for an extended duration. As a result, the rhetorical impact of this music resides almost entirely in the control of its dynamic levels, acclimating the mind of the listener to the gradual unfolding of the music’s logic. Vänskä’s attention to dynamic control could not have been better, always keeping the listener alert to the slightest of changes and creating a suspense in awaiting the next of those changes.

The Opus 104 symphony, on the other hand, made an excellent partner for the Stravinsky composition, although the symphony was composed much earlier (1923). Like the Stravinsky piece, this symphony is more “episodic” than “symphonic” in structure. Indeed, it is only in the third movement that the listener is finally confronted with the familiarity of a scherzo. Also similar to Stravinsky, there is little attention to strong cadential structures. The movements end in silence, rather than through the resolution of a strongly-stated harmonic progression. All of this can be a bit disorienting to those with strong preferences for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Vänskä guided the attentive listener through the ambiguities of Sibelius’ transitions across episodes with a sure hand. This is music that fashioned its own logic, as Stravinsky would do later in his wind “symphonies;” and Vänskä’s account of Sibelius’ approach was compelling enough to allow us always to trust the composer’s judgment.

This was a performance with absolutely no false steps, which may yet be the most memorable event of the current SFS season.

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