Review: Daniil Trifonov, President's Piano Series April 9, 2013
By Melinda Bargreen
Anticipation ran high for the Seattle debut of 22-year-old Russian-born pianist Daniil Trifonov, who played a high-velocity solo recital in the President’s Piano Series. Here was the first-prize winner of two highly prestigious international competitions, the Tchaikovsky and the Rubinstein, who also is already an accomplished composer (and plays some of his own works on recital programs).
So is he the next keyboard phenomenon?
Clearly Trifonov has a tremendous amount of ability and potential, but his Seattle recital made a mixed impression. He has great technique, and hands that easily span not only a tenth but also a tenth chord -- though when he hits the accelerator too hard, the music sounds forced and full of misplaced notes. He has a lot of interpretive finesse, but Trifonov also can draw a brash, clattery sound from the keyboard that reminds you forcibly that the piano is a member of the percussion family of instruments.
The best playing came in his first set, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, which Trifonov has performed regularly on his recital programs. Here there was subtlety and finesse as well as keyboard fireworks. Trifonov appeared to be trying to knit these Preludes together by starting one before the final chord of the previous piece has died away, with results that sometimes did disservice to both pieces. But it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer virtuosity of the playing.
Trifonov’s own “Rachmania,” a five-movement suite that does owe a great deal to Rachmaninoff (and other Russian composers), sounded like the work of a bright young virtuoso who was in the mood to extemporize. It was more a series of vignettes than a unified work with its own internal logic.
There is a good reason why we seldom hear the final piece on the program, Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme by Chopin” (Op. 22), on recital programs. It doesn’t represent Rachmaninoff at his best. A pianist looking for a big Rachmaninoff solo work would be better advised to look at other works, such as the Piano Sonata No. 1. In one respect, it made sense to program the “Chopin Variations” because they’re built on one of the Chopin Preludes Trifonov played earlier in the program (the C Minor one, which some wags have called the “Barry Manilow Prelude” because the pop singer/composer used it as the basis for his 1970s hit song “Could It Be Magic”). But the Rachmaninoff piece sounded bombastic and shallow in Trifonov’s hands, especially when he got a little careless with that phenomenal technique and the music-making sounded forced.
Hearty applause was followed by a spectacular encore, the "Infernal Dance" from Stravinsky's “Firebird” in Guido Agosti’s ultra-challenging arrangement. The pianist clearly reveled in those challenges, producing some of his best playing of the night.
VESPERTINE OPERA, April 2, 2013
How often do you attend an opera in which the “breasts” of the female lead are inflated from the sides by a helpful pair of male attendants, as our heroine prepares to change sex before our eyes?
Not often – but then, the scene described above occurs in a chamber opera that hadn’t seen the light of day in this country before the Vespertine Opera’s American premiere performance in Seattle on April 2 (repeated April 4).
Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias), a chamber opera by Francis Poulenc based on the surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire’s play of the same title, was reworked around 1958 by Benjamin Britten – a Poulenc fan – and his Aldeburgh Festival team into a two-piano, English-language version. Somehow this version dropped out of sight until it was rediscovered in 2011, re-edited, and performed last year in Great Britain.
Was it worth rediscovery? The music is vintage Poulenc, full of perky tunes and bittersweet harmonies, and the two-piano version strongly recalls his duo suite, “Scaramouche.” The vocal writing is colorful, taxing, and not all that brilliant. And the story is flat-out surrealist silly: set in “Zanzibar,” an imaginary town in the south of France, a woman (Thérèse) who is exasperated with her wifely role becomes a man with a beard (Tirésias). And her husband, meanwhile, produces 1,041 children in a single afternoon. Oh, and two gamblers decide to duel to the death over whether they are presently located in Zanzibar or in Paris; both die.
What saves all this – just barely – is the quality of the performance. The staging, by Vespertine Opera Theatre director Dan Wallace Miller, is fast-paced, cleverly inventive, and lots of fun, placing principal and supporting singers all over the tiny Columbia City Theater (including in the audience) and playing off the preposterous premises of the plot. The singing, particularly from the leads (Tess Altiveros, José Rubio, Daniel Oakden), is fearless and all-out; the commitment of the whole cast is evident all evening. The two pianists, both highly experienced opera people (Dean Williamson and David McDade), are not only unanimous and supportive of the cast, but also expert at conducting and cueing. They provided both the glue and the energy that kept the production on track.
Miller’s company is dedicated to performances of smaller-scale opera in uncommon venues, such as the University of Washington’s outdoor Sylvan Theatre and the Good Shepherd Center’s chapel in Wallingford. Small venues mean small audiences and limited income; here’s hoping Miller will be able to secure the funding and support that will ensure his venturesome company’s future.