Majesty and Mess

There's no doubt that twenty-six year old Daniil Trifonov is one of the world's truly great pianists. Among musicians his age he has few if any peers, and he possesses an astonishing level of technical skills. Taking his game even higher, he's begun composing, setting himself on a retro path few contemporary classical music stars would dare to tread. He arrived in DC this past weekend with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra to perform his first Piano Concerto. Odds are it won't be his last, and at this stage of his young career no one's going to mind too much that it sounds a lot like Rachmaninoff's 5th, especially because he plays it at a level that recalls Rachmaninoff himself.

But Trifonov, sporting an unappealing scraggly beard and long, greasy-looking hair, perhaps to mask the fact that unshaven and scrubbed-up he can pass for a lanky teenager, seems like he's trying too hard, as if he's impersonating a musician in a Dostoevsky short story, As Gergiev led the orchestra into the first movement of the concerto Trifonov sat on the bench with his chin lowered to his chest, his face tensed in dramatic concentration. While the music built toward his entrance, he slowly raised his head as if he lifting toward godhead, and then began to play with dramatic mannerisms, as if the making his music look meaningful and moving would make it sound that way. 

I have no patience for such affectations, and Trifinov doesn't need to come off like some musical Raskolnikov to impress. His playing is enough, and while he may not be a great composer yet, he certainly knows how to craft an intriguing, complex, and frequently exciting score that might sound derivative but also sounds like an artist letting loose and playing what he wants to play. That's to be respected and admired, and apart from the over-emoting this was a stand-out performance displaying an often thrilling level of virtuosity. 

It was also the highlight of an otherwise often dreary performance. The peripatetic Gergiev hasn't been in peak form for more than a decade, and even leading his house band there was little sense of any purpose in the program or that this was little more than just another night on the road as they barreled through the novelty of Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry, a three-minute piece that imitates modern machinery ala Honneger's 231, an explicable foray into Strauss' Don Juan, and a fast and blustery performance of Prokofiev's 6th Symphony. The Russians can certainly play, especially the horns and brass, but few sounded inspired and most looked like they didn't enjoy a single moment save concertmaster Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici, whose foppish hair, black pajamas, and expensive-looking suede loafers made him look absurd among his comrades as they sat dour-faced on the stage in their mostly ill-fitting attire. The lackluster Mariinsky proved quite a contrast to the dynamic recent visit by Rome's Orchestra di Santa Cecilia. It might be tempting to attribute this to national characters, especially given current politics, but what it really seemed to exemplify was the difference between watching musicians who love what they're doing versus those who seems to be doing a job. Perhaps it was just an off night. The concert was presented by Washington Performing Arts.

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