Music by Sibelius and Rachmaninov provided the intense musical landscapes traversed by the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, for the series June 21-24 at Davies Hall. The first half of the concert, devoted to the last two Sibelius symphonies, projected as consummate a sense of orchestral homogeneity and sumptuousness of tone as has been my privilege to experience. Guest pianist Daniil Trifonov joined the orchestra for a massive rendition of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, the much-familiar score’s here having received an idiosyncratic interpretation that makes us wonder what happens when a flawless technical command has nowhere to go than “other.”
The Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104 (1923) of Jean Sibelius remains among his least performed works, along with his elusive Symphony No. 3 in C Major. Even in the midst of the harmonic “revolution” enacted by the atonalists and cacophonists of the mid-1920s, Sibelius employs an anachronistic syntax that exploits his tonic D Minor with Dorian-mode sonorities (on G) of C Major. The opening panorama of sound, however, given the sheer discipline of Thomas’ ensemble, presented the strings, winds, and harp in a ravishing, incandescent vision of Nature or the Northern sensibility that the later addition of brass and tympani augmented into a sense of cosmic serenity. At times, the sensibility of this music seems distant, polyphonic, and austere; at other moments, the spatial serenity the music projects alleviates any sense of mortality.
Tympani strokes announce the second movement, Allegretto moderato, with a gaunt Michael Tilson Thomas’ molding the phrases as the woodwinds, clarinets and oboe, offered pantheistic commentary that could easily be taken as a paean to the Finnish topography. We might equate this enigmatic music with Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs,” though the effects remain aerial and transparent, ending – as had the first movement – rather abruptly. Metric anomalies permeate the third movement Poco vivace, its scherzo function made a kind of in-joke from the persistent agogic shifts in rhythm and witty distribution of colors. Some real animation did erupt in the course of the last movement, Allegro molto; but the prevailing affect, staid and icily contemplative, had rendered more awe in us than visceral triumph.
Thomas returned to the podium to lead the 1924 Seventh Symphony in C Major, Op. 105 of Jean Sibelius, a one-movement Fantasia sinfonica whose last movement Sibelius had meant to express a “Hellenic Rondo.” Once more, the diaphanous wash of pure, translucent color effected by the huge orchestra testified to the amazing, world-class discipline the San Francisco has achieved under its Music Director. Whether to consider the music a symphony in eleven designated sections or in four major divisions seems a moot point, given the organic evolution of the opening scalar patterns into a full-fledged hymn or song that emerges late in its progress. In the course of its development, the music had the winds and strings in startling colloquy, modal, dissonant, contrapuntal, and in blazing, searing sonorities, reminiscent of the supreme sonic evocations from his Tapiola symphonic poem. Whatever the diverse or contrary elements – often suggesting the movement of subterranean tectonic plates – that suffuse this extraordinary work, Tilson Thomas subsumed its colossal girth under one, imposing concept that never relinquished its taut and fluid control.
Russian piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov (b. 1991) bears a reputation for the “furor” he creates in concert, his combination of fiendish mechanical technique and intelligent musicality. That Trifonov embodies the “virtuoso” at his best accounts for his large fees and his immense, popular following. But his rendition of the “Rach 3” this evening, Friday night, soon became such an anomalous event musically that he had me wondering where brilliant and effortless technique goes when it has clearly mastered a work’s mysteries and challenges – if only through sheer repetition and stylistic familiarity – and must now seek to find new “meanings” in the otherwise “static” notes. That Trifonov’s persistent shifts in (slow) tempos and guarded dynamics found only a velvet glove in the orchestra testifies to the flexibility of Tilson Thomas’ discipline.
But the conception of this disarmingly “simple,” often doxologically melodic concerto in Rachmaninov’s oeuvre soon became willful, mannered, and more a reflection of the outdated notion of the “virtuoso” who manipulates music only for the sake of his own ego. The subordination of the piano part — so that it often reflects the Brahms concept of a “symphony with piano obbligato’ — did not prevent Trifonov’s periodic explosions of colorful sound, culminating in the first movement with his titanic realization of the long version of the cadenza, which serves a recapitulation for the first movement. The lovely Intermezzo and splashy Finale: Alla breve, as per expectation, produced the requisite frenzied hysteria in the rapturous audience, who always bask in the glories of fleet fingers. And quite promptly, Trifonov responded with a slow, nearly moribund rendition from Schumann, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” from his Op. 15 Kinderszenen. If erratic tempos and willful dynamics be the food of love, play on; but if not, at least, play the printed score.