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ARCHIVE: HSO (November 2016)

Originally published 11/4/2016

Thursday’s program at Jones Hall was titled Transcendental – Trifonov plus Rachmaninoff. Recently awarded Gramophone’s 2016 Artist of the Year, 25-year-old Daniil Trifonov has won major competitions and made several acclaimed recordings. Trifonov sported a full beard that covered his youthful looks seen in publicity photos. On this program he performed Robert Schumann’s piano concerto in A minor, with music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting the Houston Symphony.

Trifonov’s first two entrances established the dynamic and emotional contrast that continued throughout the concerto. Intimacy and melancholy were expressed with exquisitely soft and delicate tones, including sensitive exchanges with oboist Anne Leek. The first violins responded with a cohesive and elegant tone. During heroic passages, Trifonov produced a volume of sound that equaled the full orchestra. In the coda, he displayed a trance-like focus that propelled the music to its stirring conclusion.

The second movement had Trifonov displaying colorful lyricism. In a duet with the flute the piano literally sang, and during an extended cadenza the piano sounded like an organ. The cellos were beautifully expressive in one of Schumann’s most tuneful and extended melodies.

Trifonov changed the mood in the third movement with rhythmically incisive playing. The prevailing compound meter provided a pulse of optimism for Trifonov et al.

This was an inspired rendition of the Schumann concerto, with Trifonov masterfully combining 21st century pianism with 19th century sentiment. His prodigious technique served the music while never seeking to draw attention to itself. He left no doubt that he is a thoughtful and captivating musician. Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony responded with a sensitive and superbly played accompaniment.

Some of Trifonov’s most extraordinary playing of the evening came during the encore, the Fairy Tale in F minor by Nikolai Medtner. Trifonov masterfully voiced this miniature, producing four layers of dynamics that created a three-dimensional effect. It was stunning in conception and execution.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which followed intermission, was modeled after the music of Tchaikovsky, particularly his 5th symphony, also in E minor.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada is passionate in his interpretation of Romantic repertoire, sometimes with mixed results. He set the symphony’s dark and brooding opening by drawing out the violas, French horns and English horn. He then led the violins to ever increasing heights of expression and volume, even where the music would have benefitted from moments of decreased tension in order to rebuild.

The second movement consists of three distinct sections of varied tempo and meter. The Houston Symphony gave a virtuoso performance. Rhythms were well articulated in the fast sections, and a fugue, taken at breakneck speed, was brilliantly executed by the strings. At Orozco-Estrada’s urging, the orchestra provided sonically glorious playing in the contrasting expressive section.

A soft clarinet solo opens the third movement. Mark Nuccio seamlessly sustained the melody, sometimes by a single thread of sound. This theme, an intimate expression of love, gradually develops into a passionate expression of physical love. The climax is followed by a pause, then the main theme in a state of repose. Such universally shared emotions can be non-verbally expressed in music, and it was expertly done so here.

The fourth movement, a rousing and joyful finale, contains intricate syncopated rhythms. Orozco-Estrada conducted this movement at an uncompromising tempo, with the musicians rising to the challenge. The Houston Symphony has been in top-notch form under Orozco-Estrada, and audiences have been responding enthusiastically. Several musicians were recognized with solo bows during the standing ovation.

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