Recording of the Week,
Daniil Trifonov's Silver Age
Taking my cue from events elsewhere this week, I’m wary of making any official pronouncements before all the votes have been counted, but as my colleagues and I prepare to meet up on Zoom in a few hours’ time to shortlist our Recordings of the Year I predict a strong lead for this relatively eleventh-hour candidate from Daniil Trifonov, Valéry Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra – released today on Deutsche Grammophon, Silver Age features some of the most dazzling pianism and consummate all-round musicianship I’ve heard all year.
Sergei Diaghilev was the unifying factor on last Friday’s Recording of the Week, and in a neat but entirely unintentional segue the impresario is also the common denominator here – the programme features music by Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, all of whom he championed in his unofficial capacity as Russian cultural ambassador in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century. (Misha Aster’s engaging and informative booklet-note explores the relationships between Diaghilev and all three composers in fascinating detail, with typically perceptive contributions from Trifonov himself along the way – this is not only a generously-filled album, but an extremely well-documented one). The term ‘Silver Age’ refers to the flourishing of Russian culture in the years leading up to the revolution of 1917, encompassing literature, the visual arts, dance and theatre as well as music, and Trifonov’s playing reflects that interdisciplinary vision in spades: by turns balletic, cinematic, poetic and dramatic, he clearly relishes the stylistic diversity of his programme and it’s impossible not to be swept up in his enthusiasm within the first minute or two of the album.
We open with Stravinsky’s Serenade in A from 1925, and the buoyancy of the opening bars sets the tone for the Nijinsky-like grace which he later brings to transcriptions from the composer’s Petrushka and The Firebird; whereas Beatrice Rana’s accounts of these works last year emphasised their raw energy and muscularity, Trifonov is all nimble elegance, and certain passages in the former work are despatched with such Neoclassical poise that there were moments where I’d have sworn he was playing a fortepiano rather than a concert grand. As on his superb recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Études a couple of years ago, the clarity of his playing is such that you could take dictation from it if you were so inclined, even in the densest passages, though nothing ever sounds clinical or mechanical; here and above all in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (perhaps my personal highlight from the album) there’s poetry aplenty, as well as moments of gentle cantabile beauty which rival Bertrand Chamayou’s hypnotic playing on that lovely album of lullabies which bewitched me last month. And silvery, unsurprisingly, is the adjective that comes most frequently to mind in all of the solo works on the programme – I remember Trifonov mentioning the special role which bells play in Russian music around the time of his second Rachmaninov recording last year, and he summons an entire carillon from the upper register of the keyboard here without things ever lapsing into chaotic clangour.
On the second half of the album, Trifonov is joined by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra for two concertos: Prokofiev’s Second (from 1913) and Scriabin’s only essay in the genre, from 1896, with the Petrushka pieces as a palate-cleanser in between. Both works bring some of the finest, most nuanced playing I’ve heard from these forces in quite some time, the players matching their soloist’s vast array of colours and razor-sharp precision every step of the way. The wind and brass playing in the Prokofiev is scintillating stuff at both ends of the spectrum, whilst the string sound in the Scriabin has the sort of cinematic sheen that John Wilson conjures from both his eponymous orchestra and Sinfonia of London.
The final moments of this work, which closes the album in a real blaze of glory, are beautifully done, the timpani gradually receding to leave Trifonov’s final chord hanging in the air alone for a good five seconds as we all catch our breath. It’s a thrilling sign-off to two-and-a-half hours of consistently glorious music-making – never mind silver, the Russian pianist has struck gold with this one.