Daniil Trifonov, Yannick Nézet-Séguinphoto: Todd Rosenberg
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov was in Germany several times. In 1935 he also visited Baden-Baden. 3-5 November 2023, Rachmaninov’s music returned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth in Baden-Baden. The Festpielhaus celebrated Rachmaninov’s anniversary like no other. The Philadelphia Orchestra hosted in the spa town of Baden-Baden for the first time. Under the direction of the chief conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin three concerts were held from Friday to Sunday exclusively with the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. The first two evenings he settled down at the piano Daniil Trifonov. The very first evening it was not just a concert, but an event.
Grim and demonic
Daniil Trifonov performed a world-class interpretation of Rachmaninov with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Festpielhaus 4th piano concerto in G minor Op. 40.
On Friday at eight in the evening, a conductor and a soloist will enter the hall. The other has long hair. He sits down at the piano and a half-hour hurricane sweeps through the hall. The next day, critics are vying for superlatives: demonic, divine, diabolical. The hairy and bearded Trifonov perhaps reminds one of the young Rasputin.
The native of Nizhny Novgorod wields the keyboard with ease, as if unraveling the complexities of life itself. The Philadelphia Orchestra, on the other hand, guides listeners through the labyrinth of conflicting emotions and modernism of Sergei Rachmaninoff with the sovereignty, passion and commitment that can only be experienced with a top-level orchestra. The pianist has to master an incredibly difficult solo part. His hands fly over the keys. It is fascinating not only to hear, but also to see. The conductor perfectly balances the sound of the orchestra. In the quieter parts, the excellent wooden instruments of the orchestra sound. In the slow part, the strings stand out, gentle and determined at the same time. The middle section, in turn, booms with horns and timpani like thunder. Rachmaninov’s music seems to be clothed in darkness. With the next sentence comes the attack again. Both the pianist and the orchestra are so perfect that I am at a loss for words. And the orchestra has completed a long tour. Fatigue is unknown. Only those who have everything perfectly practiced play that way. And also the orchestra, which also has Rachmaninoff strongly in its genes. The history of the orchestra is closely linked with the composer. He wrote many of his compositions for him in America. Rachmaninov’s great-granddaughter is present in Baden-Baden for a wonderful musical family celebration like no other. Piano version Vocalise gives Daniil Trifonov as an encore. How to recover from amazement only in fifteen minute break?
photo: Todd Rosenberg
After the pause follows Symphony No. 2 in E minor Op. 27. A wonderful opening passage is heard. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts elegantly. With a typical open left hand gesture, it requires more vibrato and the orchestra responds sensitively. It’s an agreement. IN I’m kidding every note is precisely carved. It’s not comfortable music. No sweet smooth melodies. The mysterious chord from the beginning of the symphony peeks out again and sparkles in the middle section as well.
Before each concert, the outstanding music connoisseur Dariusz Szymanski drew attention to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s fascination with Gregorian chant in his opening lecture. “Look for it among the tones,” he urged. The last movement of the symphony showcases the virtuosity of the orchestra. The conductor dances, soars, brings incredible energy to the orchestra. The mystery of conducting? Hard to describe. The fantastic brass instruments, the gently playing woodwinds and the high virtuosity and passion in the strings deserve admiration. And the grateful conductor knows it. In front of the 1st violinist, he bowed down on his knees at the end. The Philadephia Orchestra is a superb ensemble.
“Black coffee, but without sugar,” I hear after the concert in the foyer. In general, today’s rather dark-tuned Rachmaninoff does not suit the excessive sweetness for which he is accused. Everything this evening was so balanced and incredibly good that words were hard to find.
Searching for a distinctive expression
The second evening continues in Baden-Baden with the same vigor and passion. Perhaps the composer’s most famous melody will be heard – a short one Vocalise in the orchestral version, which the composer himself recorded for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1929. It is remarkable how the orchestra with eight double basses was able to gently caress and send soft music into the hall. The stringed instruments played as one. The soloist and star of the evening was again Daniil Trifonov. He played amazingly Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini Op. 43 at breakneck pace. Trifonov’s technique plays with every note. Trifonov cannot help but hurry accompanied by such a virtuoso orchestra.
photo: Todd Rosenberg
What is interesting about this piece is that it is written as a rhapsody, and not just a variation on the same key. Rachmaninoff probably knew that a simple Paganini theme was not enough for that. Rachmaninov’s music is moving in such works. We hear perhaps the most wonderful Rachmaninov imaginable. The audience is engrossed. Conductor and orchestra strike a balance between urgent restlessness on the one hand and charm with an inner calm on the other. It is a mysterious mixture of expression. Daniil Trifonov played two encores: Gavotte in E Major and then the conductor warmly persuaded him to play the second jazz encore. During the encores, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sat hidden on the conductor’s dais.
On the program after the break is Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13. The fiasco of the first performance of this Rachmaninoff symphony was largely caused by the Russian conductor and plunged the composer into great depression. It is the most difficult of all three symphonies and not very friendly to the listener. It is a challenge for both the conductor and the audience. The young composer is looking for his own expression and experiments. And the melody that fascinated Rachmaninoff and never left it – the Gregorian chant – is heard again. The orchestra’s performance was brilliant: sweeping bass at the end of the first movement, a charming slow movement, a menacing and oppressive expression at the same time. It moves towards the finale, when Rachmaninov finds his expression in the march. Sergei Rachmaninoff had an incredible amount of ideas. (The start of the second concert evening at 6 p.m. was friendly to the audience at the Festpielhaus.)
He sounds American, but he’s Russian
The third evening features the late Sergei Rachmaninov, who composed for the American orchestra. Symphonic dances Op. 54 places an unusual instrument on the podium in the orchestra – a saxophone and also a piano. It is in the saxophone that Russian melodies sound. IN Symphony No. 3 the Gregorian chant appears again. “For the first time in the third sentence,” warns Szymanski before the concert. “The symphony is a surreal work,” he adds. It sounds surreal and the dream leads to blissful imaginings. It is possible in a dream. Fantastic gestures and delicately played wooden instruments with a high level of virtuosity, accompanied by passion and the warm sound of strings, this is the top orchestra from Philadelphia. At the very end, the conductor’s promised encore sounds Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 in orchestral arrangement.
photo: Todd Rosenberg
“It’s a strain for an orchestra to play Rachmanin’s music for three days,” thanks the conductor of the orchestra. He also appreciates the educated audience that filled the Festpielhaus hall for three evenings. Three days with Rachmaninov and the Philadelphia Orchestra and Daniil Trifonov was a worthy birthday celebration. What was seen and heard in November 2023 in Baden-Baden was a spectacular event. We think that if someone can compose notes so beautifully and someone else can play so beautifully, humanity cannot be lost.