A concert by the New York Philharmonic on Saturday night began with a rarity—a rarity by a famous and quasi-canonical composer. What’s more, this was a piano concerto by a composer known almost exclusively for piano music. Still, it is a rarity.
I am speaking of the Piano Concerto—the sole piano concerto—by Scriabin. It is an example of Scriabin before he became Scriabin, so to speak: when he was writing in a style reminiscent of Chopin and others from bygone days. He was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the concerto, in the mid-1890s. It is in the unusual key of F-sharp minor.
Would this piece be performed—ever—if it weren’t by a famous and quasi-canonical composer? If it were by Alexander Smith, let’s say, instead of by Alexander Scriabin? I’m not sure. But I must say there is real music in the second movement, Andante. It has a lovely, yearning, wistful melody. I have been listening to the second movement over and over on recordings.
Nonetheless, I wish Scriabin had written another concerto—later.
In any event, the one Scriabin piano concerto was played on Saturday night by Daniil Trifonov. On the Philharmonic’s podium was the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden. I doubt the concerto will ever have a better advocate than Trifonov. (Van Zweden and the orchestra did their parts, too.) He was virtuosic, limpid, understanding, and affectionate. He has a real Romantic heart, this guy.
Two seasons ago, I reviewed Trifonov in a piano concerto of his own. Let me quote:
The blunt question is, Would the Trifonov Concerto be programmed if it weren’t by a famous performer? To ask it another way, Would it be programmed if he didn’t play it? Almost certainly not. But this concerto reflects a love of music. And it reflects a Romantic heart.
I added that “performers ought to be encouraged to roll their own, as performers did for centuries. Only in the twentieth century did a serious split develop between composers and performers.”
After the Scriabin concerto, Trifonov played an encore—a piece that pianists often play after a concerto. This is especially true of Russian pianists after Russian concertos. Trifonov played Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor, which Horowitz took all around the world, making it famous. Every time someone plays the etude—especially as an encore, as Horowitz so frequently did—I think of it as a kind of homage.
Trifonov did not play the piece as well as he can. It was not truly under his fingers. He sort of slapped at the etude, banging away, crudely. This is not true Trifonov (or Scriabin).
After intermission, Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in one work: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Let me talk for a moment about Mariss Jansons, the great conductor who happened to die on the day of this concert (November 30).
The last time I interviewed him was two summers ago, in Salzburg, before an audience. Later, I did a write-up:
At the festival this year, he is conducting Pique Dame, the Tchaikovsky opera. We start out by talking about Tchaikovsky. He has been acquainted with him since he was a toddler.
Jansons’s father was a conductor—Arvid—and his mother was a singer—Iraida. The family lived in Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad. The parents could not afford a babysitter, so they brought Mariss along to the concert hall and the opera house. He heard a great many works. He saw the Tchaikovsky ballets so much, he knew all the steps, in addition to all the music.
In the West, people have long knocked Tchaikovsky as too pretty and sentimental. This is mainly because of how he is performed, says Jansons—namby-pambily. In Russia, they know how to perform him: Classically, and with discipline. Jansons père would say, “You must not put too much honey in it! Don’t over-sweeten the pot!”
What a genius, Tchaikovsky was. A genius melodist and a genius composer generally. Jansons fils tells us a story about Stravinsky—who returned to Russia in 1962 for the first time since his exile, nearly fifty years before. Musicians gathered around him, enthusiastically and reverently. Someone asked, “Who are your favorite composers?” Stravinsky answered, “Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Debussy.”
How about that?
Yes, how about that?
Jaap van Zweden conducted the Tchaikovsky Fifth as you knew he would: like Beethoven. With a Beethoven discipline and rigor. Of course, there is a lot of Beethoven in this symphony. The first movement was bracing, and I liked it very much. Still, it was a little dry and brusque, even for me. One thought I had was: “The Philharmonic can do everything but provide warmth. It just seems beyond them.”
Then, they began the second movement with great warmth, in the lower strings—which shut my mouth. Richard Deane proceeded to play the French-horn solo sensitively, songfully, and sturdily (by which I mean, with stability).
The third movement, the waltz, duly swirled, dreamily—and the fourth movement was fine. I like a more “Russian” sound at the beginning: grainier, coarser. I also like, further on, more pomp and swagger. More stateliness. Indeed, Tchaikovsky says “molto maestoso.”
But this was Jaap, not me, and, say what you will about him, he did not commit the sin of namby-pambyness: not for one bar. And—h/t Arvid Jansons—he did not over-sweeten the pot.