In classical music, you often encounter the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Yet this past weekend at the Philadelphia Orchestra, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin asked the audience to consider instead the three Ls: Lili, Ludwig, and Louise. Sure, there’s a bit of cheating in this: Ludwig and Beethoven are, of course, one and the same. This being the 250th anniversary of the great man’s birth makes his presence unavoidable.
The important point that Nézet-Séguin made from the podium is that Lili and Louise—Boulanger and Farrenc, respectively—are women. If you regularly attend classical concerts, you don’t need to be told that finding a woman composer on a program, let alone two women, remains frustratingly rare. Alongside the orchestra’s ongoing tribute to Beethoven’s sestercentennial, they have also dubbed this season WomenNOW, and are consciously introducing works by women into their repertoire. Let’s hope this trend continues.
Both Boulanger’s Of a Sad Evening (1918) and Farranc’s Symphony No. 2 in D major (1845) received their first Philadelphia performances as part of this bill. They were paired with alternating Beethoven piano concertos featuring the galvanic Daniil Trifonov as soloist. Audiences on January 30 and 31 heard Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, while those who attended on February 1 and 2 were treated to the more famous Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, also known as the Emperor concerto.
His own artist
I heard two consecutive performances, on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, and often felt like I was hearing these familiar pieces for the first time. In the last decade, the 28-year-old Trifonov, noted for his idiosyncratic interpretations and dramatic stage presence, has steadily risen to the highest rung of the piano world. Comparisons to the likes of Horowitz, Gould, and Argerich are not uncommon.
He certainly shares elements with each of these legends: an intent observer can recognize a kinship to Horowitz’s dynamic extremes or Argerich’s flawless sense of melody. He resembles Gould in the sense that he seems to fuse himself with the keyboard until you almost can’t tell where the person ends and the piano begins. But one thing becomes increasingly clear about Trifonov upon repeated listening: make whatever comparisons you want, but he is his own artist.
Musicians who meet each piece
At Friday’s performance, he took a work that can sometimes seem like a bagatelle and turned it into a compelling musical journey. The playfulness of the first movement—with trills so light and feathery they floated into the air like butterflies, and an overall tone that emerged like a secret whisper—gave way to forcefulness in the second. If the opening resembled historically informed performance, this was muscular, Mahlerian Beethoven, with plenty of Sturm und Drang. The concluding movement tied these two polar-opposite approaches together, while suggesting what the composer had in store for later concertos.
On Saturday, Trifonov approached the incongruous cadenzas that open the Emperor Concerto not with reckless abandon, but rather a bone-dry sense of focus. It was the first of several revelations. Rarely has the rondo finale sounded so spritely and free as it does here, like a real country dance. And rarely has the light touch of the soloist contrasted so markedly with the bombast of the orchestra. Nézet-Séguin produced voluminous cascades of sound from his forces, with a particularly valuable contribution coming from Angela Zator Nelson on the timpani. It was as brash and bold as the treatment of Piano Concerto No. 1 was delicate—a completely different sound world. Perhaps that was among the most satisfying benefits of hearing these musicians in such quick succession: It confirmed that Trifonov, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians are not fixed artists, but musicians who meet each piece on its own level.
Another benefit: watching the orchestra members watch Trifonov. He is a wonderfully animated player—his face sometimes breaking into a broad, childlike smile, his floppy hair sometimes covering his eyes with no discernible effect on his ability to strike the right keys. You can’t help but look at him with a sense of awe, as many on stage did when they weren’t taking up their own instruments. This extended to his encores too, as when he performed C.P.E. Bach’s Rondo No. 2 in C minor in a manner that sometimes felt deconstructed and at other times brimmed with a Lisztian Romantic ardor.
A strong standard for more
Romantic ardor also defined Of a Sad Evening to a surprising degree. The 10-minute tone poem reminded me less of Debussy’s Impressionism or Boulanger’s more famous sibling, Nadia, than it did of the chromatic works of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The thick sense of melancholy evoked by the title becomes evident almost immediately through tremolos in the low strings. This is a work of mourning, though for whom remains unclear. (Maybe for Lili Boulanger herself, who died the year of its composition, aged 24.) Yet in a particularly Gallic touch, the shimmering tone of a flute can be heard throughout, like the sound of a bird caught in a violent rainstorm. Associate principal flutist Patrick Williams suggested the possibility of hope after so much misery.
Farrenc’s Symphony did not strike me as an unheralded masterpiece, though it certainly deserves more recognition than it has received since its debut. In particular, her piquant writing for woodwinds aligns with a French tradition evident in contemporaries like Berlioz and descendants like Messiaen. Elsewhere, the composition seemed unbalanced—the overlong first two movements and the ethereal, witty concluding sections sometimes sounded like they were drawn from two different works. Still, Nézet-Séguin drew a stylish reading of the forty-minute work, and the audience’s enthusiastic response implied this might not be the last we hear of Louise Farrenc.
In the coming weeks, both the BeethovenNOW and WomenNOW series will swing into high gear. This past weekend’s performances set an unusually strong standard for what’s to come.
What, When, Where
BeethovenNOW: Daniil Trifonov. Lili Boulanger, Of a Sad Evening; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major and Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major; Louise Farrenc, Symphony No. 2 in D major. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Daniil Trifonov, piano. The Philadelphia Orchestra. January 31 through February 2, 2020, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected] With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.