Arts & Events

Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan Play Four-Hand Piano Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 02, 2018 - 11:16:00 AM

In the second of his three programs this season under the auspices of San Francisco Symphony, pianist Daniil Trifonov teamed up with his mentor, Sergei Babayan, to perform music from the four-hand piano repertory. Their concert took place on Tuesday evening, February 27 at Davies Hall. Having studied with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Daniil Trifonov welcomed the opportunity to perform together with Babayan, saying “it’s a great pleasure to be on a stage with him.”  

Physically, Trifonov and Babayan present very different appearances. Trifonov is lean, lithe and tall, while Babayan is short and stocky. Trifonov’s piano style is agitated, almost demonic. He bounces up and down on the stool like a man possessed. Babayan, on the contrary, plants himself on the stool and plays with almost no movement of the body. These two pianists may come at their instrument differently, physically speaking, but they were demonstrably on the same wavelength musically. As Trifonov puts it, “Because I’ve studied with him, there is already a certain understanding, a certain similar musical ‘frequency’ on which both musicians collaborate, and that of course is very helpful.”  

The program included Robert Schumann’s Andante and Variations, Opus 46, from 1843, Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo from 1976/1980, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K.448, from 1781, and Suites 1 and 2 for Two Pianos by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the first from 1893 and the second from 1901. In the Schumann, which began the program, the composer made use of shifts in tempo, mode, rhythm, and emotional mood to keep his set of variations on a simple phrase both interesting and fresh. Next came Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s short piece entitled Pari intervallo. Here two parts are set in precise parallel motion with each other, so that the interval between them is always the same – hence the “equal interval” of the work’s title. Stylistically, this piece reminded me of the piano music of Eric Satie. Here one heard the same soft, slow, tuneful repetition one finds in Satie’s Gymnopédies. 

` Mozart, as we know, grew up in a house where he and his sister, Nannerl, often played works for four-hand piano. Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, however, was not composed for the composer to be joined by his sister, but rather by his gifted pupil, Josepha Auernhammer. It is a lovely work, full of grace. It opens with a sonata-allegro form, whose development ranges into free invention. The recapitulation then recycles earlier material. The lovely second movement, marked Andante, offers a wistful first theme and a second theme that gives way to a duet of two pianos. The recapitulation leads into a coda of cascades from two pianos, brilliantly played here by Trifonov and Babayan. The finale, marked Molto allegro, is in sonata-rondo form. Here the two pianos race through a lively romp, closing the work on hunting-horn-like flourishes.  

After intermission, Trifonov and Babayan turned their attention to Rachmaninoff, performing this composer’s Suites 1 and 2 for Two Pianos. Suite No. 1 bears a sub-title Fantaisie-tableaux; and in this work Rachmaninoff engaged in scene-painting based on poems. First comes a Barcarolle from Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov that likens a lost love to the passing of a Venetian gondola, gently plying its way through the inky waters. Here there are many variations on a simple, gently rocking phrase. Next comes a section entitled The Night … The Love, based on a line from Byron’s Parisina. A nightingale’s song is repeated endlessly by Trifonov’s piano while Babayan’s piano embroiders increasingly lavish figures over the relentless call of the nightingale. The third section, entitled Tears, offers a Largo that features a four-note phrase that dominates throughout. The fourth and final section, Easter, features an evocation of church-bells as if heard coming from first one part of town then another and yet another, all beautifully evoking the Russian Orthodox Easter.  

Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, composed in 1901, eight years after his Suite No. 1, opens with a march. Themes are passed back and forth between the two pianos, now one taking the lead, now the other. The second movement offers a waltz, but it is full of cross-rhythms and quirks. A Trio section features a gorgeous melody in a half-speed waltz in one piano over against a full-speed waltz in the other piano. The Romance that follows is one of Rachmaninoff’s best slow movements, a stunningly beautiful moment of sheer lyricism. The finale offers a Taranatella that races full-speed ahead to a glorious close.  

After taking multiple bows, Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan played one encore, a ferociously flamboyant excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Trifonov and Babayan were given tumultuous applause from a very appreciative audience. It was well-deserved.