Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op 43 for piano and orchestra. Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op 22; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op 42. Trifonov: Rachmaniana, Suite for solo piano. Daniil Trifonov, piano. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. (Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon)
Rachmaninoff Variations
Trifonov | The Philadelphia Orchestra

Daniil Trifonov, piano; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. Deutsche Grammophon.

Rachmaninoff’s two variation sets, on themes by Corelli and Chopin, are not his most inspired creations. But because there is relatively little Rachmaninoff to choose from, pianists keep pulling them out, hoping to deliver performances so personal and pianistically refined that they will sound, well, like good Rachmaninoff. They rarely succeed.

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov and his producers at Deutsche Grammophon had the curious idea of juxtaposing both these works and the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” with the Philadelphia Orchestra under its exciting young conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Trifonov as soloist. The Paganini rhapsody, originally conceived as a ballet, is not a rhapsody in any Lisztian sense, but another set of variations, this time on the ubiquitous tune of Paganini’s 24th solo violin caprice.

The Philadelphia-Rachmaninoff connection goes way back. The orchestra was the composer’s favorite; his last work, “The Symphonic Dances,” is dedicated to them; and the recordings he made with Philadelphia have never been surpassed.

This new recording suggests that the Philadelphians’ unique connection with Rachmaninoff is alive and well under Nezét­Séguin’s dynamic baton. They are the perfect collaborators for Trifonov’s crystalline, sensitive piano playing. But despite the flawless execution, some dimension seems missing.

Trifonov has been hailed as the most remarkable pianist to emerge from Russia this century. His whole-hearted identification with Rachmaninoff’s musical ways and means is indisputable: He offers sensually thrilling, flawless piano playing, along with his own ambitions as a composer. Trifonov’s achingly nostalgic suite, “Rachmaniana,” also on this disc, could almost be mistaken for a work by the older master.

The missing element, it seems, is a compellingly personal point of view, a strong artistic stamp like no one else’s.

This may develop with time — recording contracts, publicists and life experience permitting. Trifonov is, after all, 24. Meanwhile, this recording is a brilliant promise of things to come.

Patrick Rucker

Rucker is a freelance writer.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

Hamburg Philharmonic; Simone Young, conductor. Oehms.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Hamburg Philharmonic; Simone Young, conductor. Oehms. (Courtesy of Naxos of America)

Conductor Simone Young has led the Hamburg State Opera and the Hamburg Philharmonic, to widespread praise, since 2005. This summer, coinciding with the end of her tenure with the orchestra, she completed her live recorded cycle of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies with this compact version of the Ninth.

Young, who was principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic several years before Marin Alsop was appointed to lead the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and who has also served as music director of Opera Australia, is not only the first woman to record the entire Bruckner cycle on disk but the first to record a Bruckner symphony.

Bruckner’s obsessive reworking of his scores has so muddied the waters that a conductor’s choice of which edition to use becomes a distinguishing feature of any cycle.

In Hamburg, Young used the earliest published version of each symphony, as if opting to trust Bruckner’s first thoughts on the music.

The main challenge of Bruckner’s Ninth is the fourth movement, which he did not complete before he died. Young included only the three movements that Bruckner finished — an option familiar from many existing recordings, but arguably less true to Bruckner’s first thoughts than a reconstruction of the finale in some form, since Bruckner left far more than mere sketches of his vision.

And Young does not quite hold up to the competition. The playing of the Hamburg musicians is excellent, setting aside minor imperfections that are part of all live recordings.

Young’s tempos are odd, though, especially in the middle-movement scherzo, which is slow and feels too deliberate, not terrifying enough.

The outer movements, by contrast, are rather hurried and lean on rubato so that the overall timing, under an hour, is closer to the slender readings of Harnoncourt and Norrington than to the magisterial interpretations of Günter Wand or Karajan.

Young recently told the Sydney Morning Herald that she plans to conduct more symphonic music than opera now, and she will be traveling more, including to the United States. Could a stop in Washington be in her future?

Charles T. Downey

Downey is a freelance writer.