Silver Age = STRAVINSKY: Serenade in A; 3 Movements from Petrushka; The Firebird – Suite for Piano (trans. Agosti); PROKOFIEV: 5 Sarcasms, Op. 17; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84; Gavotte, Op. 95, No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16; SCRIABIN: Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op. 20 – Daniil Trifonov, piano/ Mariinsky Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev – DGG 453 5331 (2 CDs) 69:39; 75:44 (9/1/20) [Distr. by Universal] *****:
Pianist Daniil Trifonov (b. 1991) conceives this album as a tour of the fin de siècle sensibility in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Paris, a grand kaleidoscope of often revolutionary personalities who consciously assaulted the established, complacent expectations of their musical public. As Trifonov expresses his premise, “The Silver Age of art in Russian history is not a single aesthetic, but describes an increasingly fractured social, political, and intellectual environment – a cocktail of different artistic expressions, in agitated interaction.”
Trifonov opens with Igor Stravinsky’s stylistic concession to Russian “heterodoxy” with the “utilitarian” 1925 Serenade in A, a result of the composer’s first American tour and his signing a gramophone contract; thus, he wrote a work whose four (neo-Classic) movements would not much exceed a single side of a 78 rpm shellac’s three minutes’ playing time. The piece looks “forward” in the sense of properly not conforming to either mode of A but emanating from the key and returning to it within the last chord of each movement, on a different degree of the triad. Charles Rosen once called the Serenade the “loveliest” of the Stravinsky piano canon, but its lyricism seems grudging, the opening Hymne only vaguely indebted to the Chopin F Major Ballade Stravinsky claimed as a precursor. The Romanza has some wistful moments, but it proceeds as a staccato improvisation. The playful Rondoletto might carry a perpetuum mobile hint of the ballet Petrushka, with its debts to the commedia dell’arte. The Cadenza finala wafts in Russian figures, somewhat akin to Scriabin’s exotic, dissonant syntax.
The 1910 ballet The Firebird has its roots in Russian folklore, its musical syntax indebted to Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The three episodes in piano score begin with the Infernal Dance of All of Kashchei’s Subjects, a frenzied eddy from the evil ogre’s diabolical guards. Their blistering, layered notes dissolve into the tender Lullaby, an Andante whose bass chords move in lulling motion over rivulets of sound. Trifonov extends the radiance of the occasion into the Finale, a wedding procession of the Prince and his Princess, with the keyboard’s silvery evocation of harp figurations.
A sense of experiment permeates the Five Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1912-1914) of Serge Prokofiev, with their rhythmic irregularities and shifts of mood and color. Konstantin Igumnov thought the music reminded him of a drunken, displaced reveler. We might find in the colossal, often angry and self-consuming energies a musical correspondence to the unnamed narrator in Dostoievsky’s Notes from Underground. Of note resound Trifonov’s last two sections, the haunted Smanioso (yearning) and the bizarre Precipitosissimo – Andante – L’istesso tempo finale, which moves from pounding chords to miniature bells and sparking lights and back again to a disturbed and eerie world informed by Mussorgsky and late Liszt.
Between 1939 and 1944 Prokofiev worked in his three so-called “War Sonatas,” of which the Eighth compresses feelings of isolation and despair as well as personal and national, moral victory. The opening, highly polyphonic movement incorporates prior film music to The Queen of Spades, a series of elongated Andantes, the last of which, in G Minor, segues into the Allegro. Trifonov’s piercing bell tones and rapid scales sweep across an imaginative, war-torn vista both dramatic and cinematic. This psychological horizon thins its texture to running figures with a deep and violent bass part, ending in a gloomy epilogue.
The Andante movement, marked sognando (dreamy), owes debts to the Op. 71 film music for Eugene Onegin and its ball scene. The music carries a lethargic charm serving much the same function as Beethoven’s middle movement between two abysses in the Moonlight Sonata. The last movement Vivace – Allegro ben marcato – Andantino – Vivace begins with a frenzied, running motif, almost a toccata. Whatever heroic impulses emerge, they seem to suffer dissolution and weirdly grand but abortive gestures. Trifonov’s rippling triplets and motor propulsion may well justify the price of admission. Sviatoslav Richter called the Eighth Sonata the “richest of them all, an abundance of riches.”
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor (1912; rev. 1923) seems to have been created purposely to provoke controversy. Its four movements combine elegiac grace, demonic energy, irony, and fierce counterpoint, qualities well suited to the Trifonov temperament. The huge first movement cadenza in the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto provided some impetus for Prokofiev’s own large cadenza in his Andantino – Allegro first movement. The piano and the orchestra rather compete for “symphonic” superiority. A Russian bear seems to dominate the rhythmic universe of movement three, Intermezzo – Allegro moderato. Its dissonant syncopations arrest and disturb, to quote W. Somerset Maugham. The last movement provides a tour de force for Trifonov and Gergiev, a stunning exercise in transformative volatility that evolves into a haunted and mesmerizing march.
“[Petrushka] is such a work of genius that I cannot contemplate anything beyond it.” – Serge Diaghilev
A decade after the ballet’s celebrated premiere in 1911, Stravinsky returned to the music of Petrushka to create a showpiece for pianist Artur Rubinstein. The first excerpt, Russian Dance, comes from the end of the ballet’s first tableau, a scene at the 1830s St. Petersburg fair in which Petrushka and his fellow puppets come to life and dance for the crowd. The second movement, Petrushka’s Room, explores the interior of the puppet theater to reveal the love triangle between Petrushka, the rival Moor, and the Ballerina they both desire. The discordant, rising triad figures near the beginning spell out the distinctive “Petrushka” chord in two, dissonant keys that ring throughout the ballet. The third movement transcribes the merriment from the ballet’s final scene at the Shrovetide Fair, complete with gypsies, a dancing bear and a group of masqueraders. Stravinsky always conceived the piano as a percussive instrument; and, even before the keyboard solo arrangement for Rubinstein, the piano appears as part of the orchestral tissue. Nevertheless, the piano transcription proves virtuosic and poetic, even as the composer exploits the percussive diapason of color, the “reckless abandon” (Myaskovsky’s words) the music offers.
Trifonov and Gergiev conclude their grand reminiscence of late Russian romanticism with the 1896 Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op. 20 of the mystic Alexander Scriabin. A genuine lyrical expression for Scriabin’s chosen instrument, the work has its pitfalls, especially in its idiosyncratic sense of rubato. Shifts of mood and color infiltrate the writing, and its middle movement, Andante and Variations, proves ineffably lovely. Scriabin makes the left-hand part extremely tortuous, his right hand’s having been injured – a la Schumann – in the writing of the Concerto. Trifonov here follows the path of Josef Hofmann, Dimitri Bashkirov, Nikolai Demidenko, and Garrick Ohlsson in his advocacy of one of music’s most original piano concertos.
An epic sojourn into Russian aesthetic history, beautifully captured (January and October 2019) by Recording Engineers Silas Brown and Marcus Herzog, under the Production supervision of Sid McLauchlan.