CHOPIN: “Evocations” = Piano Concertos; Rondo for 2 pianos; “Fantasie Impromptu”; Chopin-inspired works by SCHUMANN, BARBER, TCHAIKOVSKY, MOMPOU – Daniil Trifonov/ Sergei Babayan/ Mahler Chamber Orch./ Mikhail Pletnev – DGG 

CHOPIN: Evocations = Piano Concerto No. 2 in f minor, Op. 21; Piano Concerto No. 1 in e minor, Op. 11; Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2; Rondo in C Major for 2 Pianos, Op. 73; Impromptu No. 4 in c-sharp minor, Op. 66 “Fantasie-Impromptu”; SCHUMANN: “Chopin” from Carnaval, Op. 9; GRIEG: Study “Hommage a Chopin”; BARBER: Nocturne, Op. 33; TCHAIKOVSKY: Un poco di Chopin, Op. 72, No. 15; MOMPOU: Variations on a Theme of Chopin – Daniil Trifonov, piano/ Sergei Babayan, piano (Op. 73)/ Mahler Chamber Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev – DGG 479 7518 (2 CDs) 62:18; 77:43 (10/6/17)  [Distr. by Universal] *****: 

An elegant love-letter or postcard to Chopin, in new arrangements and signed by several admirers.

Purists beware: pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev has re-orchestrated the two Chopin piano concertos, attempting to establish “more of an equality of participation” between the forces. Some will recall that Alfred Cortot made his own adjustments to Chopin’s original almost a century ago. Pianist Daniil Trifonov has supplemented the exclusively Chopin pieces with creative “responses” to his work from other composers of various nationalities, those who appreciate “the essence of the Chopin character: his evocative, personal intimacy. The 1957 Mompou piece conveys a tender insecurity but also a sense of hope.”

The Second Concerto opens with winds rather than strings, with a clear sense of nervous agitation that mark its introspective, dark color. The orchestral texture, transparent and imaginatively highlighting individual instruments—namely the bassoon—grants a streamlined approach that liberates the piano solos to a degree from the otherwise thick intricacy of Chopin’s original. The keyboard part, untouched, achieves a free glitter and energized spotlight in the manner of the Classical, Mozart concerto model Chopin admired. The natural fluency of Trifonov’s phrasing and rubato well suit the elastic temperament of the f minor Concerto, whose capacity to explode into emotional torrents always captivates its adherents. The tuttis do not lack for emotional and dynamic power, especially as expressed by the brass parts and tympani. And after the rage of the orchestra in the Maestoso movement, and over a wind pedal, Trifonov executes the lyrical cantabile line that virtually defines the vocal ethos of the Chopin keyboard style.

After the athletics of the stile brillante that mark the opening movement, The Larghetto in A-flat Major grants us a magical repose of ineffable beauty. The passing ornaments and roulades move with a silken, gliding motion that will remind many auditors of some “golden age” pianism, echoes of Rubinstein, Friedman, and Rosenthal, and Hofmann. The radiant light suddenly assumes a threatening cast, agitated, fraught with thoughts of the mortal storm. Liszt referred to the dark passages as containing “tender pathos,” and the sentiment proves apt. Trifonov’s transition to the da capo has the transparent magic of a musical box. The bassoon enters in canon, and the sonic blend, adding a horn, enjoys the intimacy of refined chamber music. The lilting mazurka rhythms of the evanescent last movement, Allegro vivace, project the Polish national spirit in direct terms, semplice e grazioso.  The col legno effects in the strings still manage a piquant, flirtatiously operatic suasion, especially as Pletnev’s maintains a light hand on the proceedings.  A hunting-horn motif sends Trifonov on spirited, cascading runs while the orchestra adds a national pageantry to a crystalline keyboard wash of ecstatic sound.

Robert Schumann went into hyperbolic raptures upon hearing Chopin’s 1831 Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni. The harmonic daring of the piece may not impress us so extravagantly, but for a twenty-one-year-old virtuoso, the application of his own bel canto style and innate bravura to Mozart still injects spice and vinegar in new bottles.  The opening B-flat Major setting virtually adumbrates all the variants that ensue. Between dainty modesty and boldly assertive flamboyance, the six variations and coda (Alla polacca) invest the imaginative response with lyricism, drama, polyphony, and much in the manner of keyboard etude-instruction. The Adagio section certainly anticipates the wonders of the later nocturnes, while the Polacca speaks for itself and a cultural movement.

Disc One ends with four moments of homage to Chopin: “Chopin” from Schumann’s 1835 Carnaval (marked Agitato) maintains its evocative allure; the Grieg Study, Op. 73, No. 5 (Allegro agitato) has the dark energy of Chopin’s Op. 10 minor-key etudes; Barber’s 1959 Nocturne, while meant in honor of Chopin’s predecessor John Field, utilizes arpeggios and relatively modern harmony to invoke Chopin’s chromatic line. It fades away after an intense climax, in which Trifonov emotes with the same authority this piece gleaned from John Browning. Tchaikovsky’s stylish miniature, Tempo di Mazurka, has an elfin character, more balletic than nationalistic, but still endowed with the Russian’s elegant sense of melodic line and ornaments.

To open Disc Two, Trifonov joins his mentor and teacher Sergei Babayan (b. 1961) in Chopin’s posthumous (1828, unpublished) Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, a jeweled piece that delights in chains of roulades and sashays with a courtly, aristocratic grace, though some detect a Semitic influence and color in the repeated melody.  The 1830 Concerto in e minor—now in Pletnev’s orchestration—recall, came after the f minor Concerto, and it exerts many an influence from Johann Nepomuk Hummel, whose own fioritura style neatly serves as a bridge between Mozart and Chopin. Even from the outset, with its sweeping chords, the bravura element contrasts in fine balance with the operatic vocal line taken from Bellini. Trifonov shapes each phrase and period with tender, loving care. The improvisatory—and lengthy—narrative style enjoys a seamless fluidity and logic. Pletnev keeps the marvelous French horn dialogue with Trifonov. The extended procession to the (desired) G Major proves infinitely fascinating and lyrically seductive.

Of the sweet Larghetto in E Major, Chopin commented, “It is a Romance, calm and melancholy. . .a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a spring evening. Hence, the accompaniment is muted. . .”  The contemplative, almost static, atmosphere enjoys a gauzy, enchanted haze—are those teardrops from the suspended upper register?—and rises to a placid B Major. The last movement, Rondo: Vivace, delivers a spirited, national dance, a krakowiak, which Chopin had already treated in full measure as his Op. 14. Because of its strong resemblance to an Impromptu in E-flat Major by Ignaz Moscheles, the Fantasie-Impromptu in c-sharp minor (1835) of Chopin was denied publication. Now, immensely popular, it reveals its various charms, including having the hands proceed in competing meters. At first an etude, it succumbs to a mesmerizing melody—sotto voce—in D-flat, that bears the unmistakable imprint of a nocturne.

Federico Mompou (1893-1987) conceived his Variations on a Theme of Chopin in 1938, having meant to collaborate with cellist Gaspar Cassado on a duet-project. The piece evolves after the tiny Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7, proceeding to twelve variants. The eponymous “Evocation” occurs as Variation 10, marked Cantabile molto espressivo, and openly alluding to the melody from Fantasie-Impromptu, itself a “reaction” to the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata. Some of the other variants worth a long listen include No. 3, a Lento for the left hand; No. 5 in A, a mazurka; No. 6, a Recitativo in g minor; No. 9, a Valse in A Major; and No. 12, Galope y Epilogo in A, a grand finale in every sense. Both digitally and harmonically challenging, the music often gravitates into exotic areas, sometimes hinting at Chabrier or Scriabin.

Recorded April-May 2017, as engineered by Marcus Herzog, the set embodies a long love-letter to Chopin, brilliantly rendered.

—Gary Lemco

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