Back again at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam; to say it with Barbra and Judy: Happy Days are here again. American cultural icons will play a bigger role in this evening than you might think. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchest is playing a program with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First conducted by its chief conductor Daniele Gatti, the Russian virtuoso Daniil Trifonov is the soloist. The orchestra will be taking this program on tour to Vienna and Dresden.
The program begins with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, which we basically owe to the virtuoso-crazy Paris of the twenties and the ego of its composer. How do you impress the crowds of Paris? Just compose another showpiece for yourself and parade it around! We have a concerto with exquisite melodies in c-major with a touch of oriental flair, and some of the most exciting fingering of any piano concerto.
This is my third-time hearing Daniil Trifonov, when looking at last night it is worth considering those previous two performances: My first time hearing him was with Rachmaninov 3 in Berlin under Rattle. With Rach 3 being a virtuoso showpiece, Trifonov took a more laboured and unconventional approach, slowing down especially in the finale. This worked brilliantly, the hall granted a standing ovation (not common in Berlin) for this remarkable new perspective of an often-played work. I encountered Trifonov’s unconventional view once again in my second time hearing him, this time with the (from a virtuoso point of view) less demanding Schumann piano concerto (also in Berlin, under Jansons) And all of a sudden, this Schumann got polyphone structures, expressionist dissonances and a borderline, crazy-fast tempo in the third movement! Schumann sounded like Yuja Wang or Lang Lang ripping out a technically perfect Rachmaninov of Prokofjew.
So what are we getting for the real Prokofjew tonight, for the Third Piano Concerto, the ultimate show piece? Trifonov starts out slower in the first movement, we are once again heading for an unconventional interpretation. If it weren’t for Trifonov’s typical unique spots of brilliance (an incredible run here, an unknown and tremendously exciting accentuation there), this would sound like a Chopin-concerto. That is also, because Daniele Gatti holds back his orchestra to quite a degree. The strings are sparing in their bowing, the woodwinds appear reluctant and do not engage with the joyously sizzling melodies before them. This Prokofjew certainly does not operate on sheer virtuoso skill.
But, as the second and third movements teach us, it does not have to. Any lover of mind-bending virtuoso efforts and expressionist sound will think this performance too withdrawn and, indeed, Chopin-esque. Both tempi and phrasing are not as radical and adventurous as Sir Simon Rattle for example would have probably made them out to be.
And yet, Trifonov still saves the day with his truly impressive command at the piano. We should remember that Trifonov composes himself, and has this remarkable musical sense for creating that little, special moment in every piece he is playing.
As with Leonard Bernstein’s expressive, composer-oriented Mahler interpretations, Trifonov constantly manages to conjure up that special moment. You do have to hear him live though, I doubt that recordings can really capture that unique inspiration.
After the interval, we hear Mahler’s First. Even some hard-core music lovers find it difficult to get a grip of this symphony. Having heard it in Berlin (Dudamel) and Rotterdam (Nezet-Seguin), I see is as a great opportunity to observe a genius finding its mature voice.
With Mahler nowadays, there is often the problem that conductors rationalise their interpretations by simply letting Mahler be Mahler. Don’t do too much with him, that let’s things seem over-the-top! Some of Claudio Abbado’s late Mahler recordings from Lucerne are prime cases in point.
Gatti and the Concertgebouw go against the trend and finally go the distance with Mahler. There is engagement and passion on the last desks, which makes for the best interpretation I have ever heard of this symphony. Finally, we hear Mahler as the self-destructive, forever broken artist that he was. That phrasing is reminiscent of Bernstein’s emotional approach to Mahler’s music. Since it is his centenary this year, Bernstein’s emotional readings of Mahler might come back en Vogue, it’s about time.
While the first movement starts out slowly, one thing is evident from the first note: Gatti is getting to work on Mahler and the orchestra, the strings are moving swiftly, living the music. This is truly Bernsteinian. The first movement is truly dominated by the fantastic string section, a fitting approach since Mahler’s music is generally written for orchestras and halls, where the strings are more pronounced (Vienna).
The horns are taken over by their energy and use some well placed rubati to either dramatically shorten or agonisingly lengthen their melody lines. Mahler is truly fighting with himself, is ugly at times and never allows the listener even a moment of boredom. Gatti’s tempi are courageous, in the second movement he resembles a bus driver, wipping his orchestra around steep mountainous terrain. The trio in the second movement is truly spectacular, the dynamics are handled so that the woodwinds get their moment to shine and hence an opportunity to make the whole thing into a charming, lascivious waltz.
While the beginning of the third movement is a litte unusual, it fits to this interpretation: Instead of a single double bass taking the Frere Jacques solo, the entire bass group takes the solo. Otherwise, this third movement is a solemn triumph, where Gatti manages to accentuate all the jewish dance and klezmer there is in this music.
Finally, the finale. It is a true emotional rollercoaster, with so many clever (rapid) dynamic transitions, that I find myself thinking: The could have easily played Wagner’s Ouverture to the Flying Dutchman or Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite before this instead of the Prokofjew. The violas handle their disturbing calls at the beginning of the enormous coda brilliantly, where the whole orchestra engages with rapture and passion. What makes the finale truly great, is that the strings never lose control, they always stay on the beat, never become frenetic. Literally everything fits with this Mahler interpretation, also the brass and percussion sections are in top form. Now I am looking forward even more to my Mahler 7 with Gatti and the Concertgebouw in August. This Mahler might be uncomfortable to some, to me it is exciting, diverse and would have certainly put a smile on the face of the Birthday boy, if he were still alive. It was also a homage to Bernstein tonight. Yannick Eisenaecher 10th May 2018
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics