176 keys and 20 fingers: a thrilling romp through Rachmaninoff’s music

Sergei Babayan, Daniil Trifonov
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Sometimes you can tell perfectly well which part of a concert program is the motivating factor, and what material is only there to justify it. Pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan clearly took to the stage of Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 27, just so they could play Rachmaninoff’s two Suites for Two Pianos after intermission.

They did a glorious and passionately committed job of it. That’s how I know.

And although the two Suites (from 1893 and 1901, respectively) represent Rachmaninoff’s keyboard artistry at its most evocative and inspired, these pieces aren’t as easy to put on the concert stage as his solo piano music — if for no other reason than that they require twice as many virtuosos.

But Trifonov and Babayan had taken the full measure of both works, and came prepared to give them their due, in all their poetic nuance and finger-busting technical bravura. The results were vigorous and tonally sumptuous, a thrilling reminder of how much can be achieved with 176 keys and 20 fingers.

Those numbers point to one of the chief perils of duo-piano music, for both composers and performers — namely, the risk of excess. Thunderous chords and dense harmonic textures can often tip over into bluster with so much sheer sound in the mix.

Yet one of the impressive aspects of Trifonov and Babayan’s partnership was how deftly they calibrated those balances. They gave plenty of weight to Rachmaninoff’s biggest instrumental effects and tore through the virtuosic episodes seamlessly, but they also let the music’s melodic impulses shine through with wondrous translucency.

Pictorialism is more overtly the province of the First Suite, which began life as a collection of four character pieces inspired by the poetic excerpts that adorn each movement. The rippling, watery figuration of the opening Barcarolle was gracefully done in both its swirling backdrop and its melodic profile; the short, repetitive finale, conjuring the tolling of Russian church bells, made its points with superbly blunt efficiency.

Better still was the Second Suite, in which the composer seemed to craft a whole new language of collaboration and competition for the two-piano format — one that Trifonov and Babayan had internalized splendidly. The robust opening March, the gorgeously tender Romance and the extraordinary pyrotechnics of the Waltz and Tarantella movements were all rendered with consummate skill. So too was the encore, a fierce and bumptious excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Maiden.”

Read the full review.