The threatening Saturday night weather at Tanglewood anticipated not only the Brahms First Piano Concerto, but also Prokofiev’s brilliant, succinct meditation on modern life and its multi-colored umbrella rituals.
With Dadaism on the rise in New York and Zurich, a similar revolutionary avant-garde movement was developing in Russia when Prokofiev composed his Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, and nicknamed it “Classical.” Though not a Dadaist himself, Prokofiev hinted at some influence, writing “When our classically inclined musicians and professors (to my mind faux-classical) hear this symphony, they will be bound to scream in protest at this new example of Prokofiev’s insolence … while the public will no doubt just be content to hear happy and uncomplicated music which it will, of course, applaud.”
With the BSO in their summer white, Nelsons ― all in black ― gave us a reading that you don’t often hear, taking the Prokofiev with dead seriousness rather than as entertaining fluff. He infused the opening allegro with a subtle circus-feel, taking it at a moderate pace, which worked well to bring out the interplay amongst the instrumental sections. The Larghetto, softly pulsing and with high, singing strings, evoked a slightly satirical love song, ending in sadness. Nelsons deftly gave the distinctively Haydnesque moment, reminiscent of the “Clock” symphony, a tinge of the grotesque, a faint Egon Schiele feel. Under Nelson’s sharp baton, Prokofiev’s conceit ― “what would Haydn write if he were composing in 1916?” ― revealed an uncomfortable parallel between two unstable world orders about to plunge into chaos. The moderately-paced Gavotte, in contrast, appropriated Haydn’s insider’s appreciation of courtly rituals to ironize about their modern metamorphoses into new equally mirthful rituals, such as public audiences attending concerts with tickets in hand like magic passes, or mass spectacles for mass consumers. A dark, even sinister middle section hinted briefly at the nauseous smell of nationalism, followed by a distant repeat that moving away inexorably with pomp and circumstance to culminate in thermal death. Nelsons shaped the Molto vivace finale into a manifesto of modern aesthetics: speed, telegraph, mechanization, noise and bustle, almost manic in energy, creating a new modern classicism. Rocking and comic, with a folkish dance development, it led with increasing rush to the coda and a starburst cadence. The modern world, with all of its earnest progress and confident march to disaster.
In the attempt to move beyond Beethoven, Prokofiev opted to revive Haydn’s succinct, understated format. Brahms, whose First Piano Concerto honors, and struggles with, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at every turn, took the opposite route of massively immersing his concerto into subjectivity. Would Nelsons and Daniil Trifonov fight it, or give it “all the time in the world”?
The latter. Acutely probing the “Maestoso” marking and the d minor key, Nelsons gave the orchestral introduction a fiercely sublime feeling of “immovable Fate.” The exposition emerged right from the start with suffering lyricism, which Trifonov swiftly elaborated into a sort of Rachmaninoff-like state of martyrdom, more titanic in grief than Beethoven’s Prometheus, but infinitely more uncertain in its quest for divine fire. Trifonov is sometimes criticized for relying on exaggeration for special effect, but in this context, it worked semantically: absorbing the grief of Schumann’s tragedy, Trifonov’s piano attempted in vain to assert itself against the domineering orchestra, then mustered the inner resources to burst into violent, defiant crescendo octaves. The hero/composer turned before our eyes into a visionary ― able to meet the challenge of Fate with his own creativity. And, yes, to help Clara ― to hold a mirror to her, so she could see the contour and meaning of her own vast and perhaps thwarted genius.
The Adagio, explicitly a portrait of Clara, started with an exceptionally lovely expansiveness in the orchestra, spreading stillness like a vast mantle into the night. Against this billowing, melodic flesh, Trifonov entered with a distinctively solitary voice, made up of gentle phrasing, soft and deliciously slow passages swelling with emotion, with a dramatic, emphatic trio, as though the young composer’s tribute to Clara carved out a safe hollow for his own rebirth. The return of the A section felt a bit more anchored in the here and now, as well as more wistful, crowned by trills descending into a long sigh. The divine gift, at this point, stolen from a maternal and inaccessible figure, is simply love, timeless, fulfilling and dangerous.
Which brings us back to the composer’s quest and Promethean struggle. Trifonov opened the Rondo finale with a whirlwind of fierce resolve ― forget the “non troppo” ― taking hold of those deep subjective energies that turn the composer into a magus, possessed and irresistible. We now experienced the Paganini-like Trifonov, holding nothing back, harnessing primitive inner powers and rhythms that the rest of us have long forgotten and suppressed. Shamanic, riveting, sacrificial priest but also sacrificial victim of his own barbaric prowess, Trifonov thrilled and captivated, drawing the Tzigane frenzy out of his own substance. Nor could the orchestra’s elegant horns stop the piano from gaining the upper hand irreversibly and dominating the score, more ominous in coming of age than triumphant; more volcanic than enlightening in its magnificent, terrible subjective glow.
The audience responded with all of the primitive, irrational, cathartic enthusiasm that Trifonov had mobilized, and flashes of lightning without the Shed boosted the ovation. Revealingly, Trifonov played an exquisitely poised, calm, restrained encore: Bist du bei meir, from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook. “If you are with me.”
We have come to expect the unexpected from Trifonov. He is a supremely gifted pianist and can give us breathtaking and awe-inspiring interpretations. He can also render a work in the most puzzling and even bizarre manner. On Saturday night we shared visceral excitement. Trifonov revealed himself as a Paganini-like magus, enthralling by bold daring and captivating by hair-raising risk taking. But he also hinted at his many other incarnations and perspectives.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.