Classical CD Reviews: Arabella Steinbacher plays Britten and Hindemith and Daniil Trifonov’s “Chopin Evocations”

Hindemith and Britten could hardly have asked for more committed advocates than Arabella Steinbacher, Vladimir Jurowski, and the RSOB; pianist Daniil Trifonov pulls off a heady, virtuosic mix.

By Jonathan Blumhofer


It’s always good to get a new recording of Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto. And when it’s paired with a piece as deserving as Paul Hindemith’s Violin Concerto, well, you just hope that the performances live up to your hopes for them. Here they do in this Pentatone release. Violinist Arabella Steinbacher’s got more than a few ideas about each and both of them suit her playing to a “t.”

Steinbacher’s a terrific advocate for the Britten. I’ve not always been crazy about her playing of Romantic fare, but this is a piece that isn’t quite that: in terms of structure and content, Britten’s Concerto is more Classical than not and in this reading Steinbacher really gets it to sing. Her pure, clean tone suits many of the music’s most devilish moments, like the double-stop artificial harmonics that close the first movement and the blistering, no-nonsense outer parts of the second-movement scherzo

At the same time, she’s not averse to tastefully warming up certain passages, like the second movement’s Iberian-flavored trio or the soaring opening phrases of the first. And she paces the solo part of the big passacaglia-finale smartly: the climax should be shattering and, in this reading, it is.

Jurowski leads the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSOB) in a taut, lucid account of Britten’s extraordinary score. Only in the finale do problems creep up: there’s some sour intonation in the opening trumpet solo, and a certain tentativeness and lack of momentum between some of the middle variations. But these are small quibbles in an otherwise urgent and tragic performance of an unheralded masterpiece.

Quite the opposite, expressively at least, is Hindemith’s 1940 Concerto. Hindemith’s a composer whose reputation has fallen rather precipitously (and not without cause) since his death, yet, when played rightly, his music speaks strongly, as this disc demonstrates.

Above all, Steinbacher taps the rich lyricism of Hindemith’s writing: in her performance, the first two movements might almost make you reconsider his place in the canon of great German tunesmiths, so songfully does everything come across. Her tempos tend to be on the slower side: this reading is a bit longer than Midori’s 2013 account, and considerably over both Leonidas Kavakos’ and Frank Peter Zimmermann’s. But there’s never the sense that Steinbacher’s dawdling with the line, so sweet and lively is her tone. Hers is a truly great performance, thrilling and charismatic in the outer movements, soulful in the middle one.

In the Hindemith, too, Jurowski leads the RSOB in an accompaniment that’s wholly suited to the music’s style, rhythmically tight and technicolor. There are more than a few spots in the outer movements that recall gestures of some of Hindemith’s contemporaries, particularly Erich Wolfgang Korngold (though Hindemith’s harmonic language is much more acerbic), which helps place the piece in a recognizable (and rather favorable) context. If any performance is going to bring this well-deserving music in from the cold, well, here you have it: Hindemith could hardly have asked for more committed advocates than Steinbacher, Jurowski, and the RSOB.


Daniil Trifonov is back. Two years after his survey of music by Rachmaninoff, the Russian dynamo tackles the extended influence of Frederic Chopin for Deutsche Grammophon (DG) on a two-disc set called Chopin Evocations that includes works by Chopin (including the piano concertos) plus pieces inspired by him by Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Mompou, and others. It’s a heady, virtuosic mix, but if any pianist can pull it off, it’s Trifonov, whose intellect and musicianship shines brightly throughout the endeavor.

Both of Chopin’s piano concertos are heard in new orchestrations by Mikhail Pletnev, who also conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO). By and large, Pletnev’s alterations are welcome: Chopin was no great orchestrator and, while purists may object, these are re-scorings that make better use of the orchestra, both tonally and dramatically. Figures are freely transferred to other instrumental families (the opening of the Second Concerto’s first movement, for instance, is given to the clarinets instead of violins), some of the static accompanimental bits are either transposed to better “speak” or fluently spread between strings, winds, and brass (as opposed to Chopin’s tendency to give nearly everything to strings alone). Occasionally, Pletnev adds a countermelody or gesture that’s implied by the music but not from Chopin’s pen, though those moments are relatively rare.

What he’s managed, in the end, is to craft something that’s arguably better and more involved than the original. Is it entirely necessary? Probably not – these pieces have endured well enough going on two hundred years already. But why should that matter? It’s respectfully done and artfully handled: the MCO plays it all with warmth and energy.

Best of all, Pletnev’s reworkings engage the piano and orchestra in unexpected ways, allowing a greater sense of dialogue and interplay between the solo and orchestral parts. Trifonov thrives on this, with readings of the respective solo parts that are rich with nuance. He’s a pianist for whom, in this repertoire at least, the technical and interpretive merge into one. The dexterity of his playing is amazing: always controlled, richly colored, yet seemingly made up on the spot, there’s a freshness to the performances that’s thoroughly ingratiating.

His performance of Chopin’s variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano,” is likewise brilliantly exact and overflowing with vim. Playing a solo-piano adaptation of this piano-and-orchestra score, Trifonov makes light (as it were) work of the fast first, second, and fourth variations and turns in an impassioned account of the fifth-variation Adagio. The closing Polacca is, like the finales of the concerti, marked by a certain rustic directness and rhythmic brio.

The album’s other Chopin works – the Rondo in C major, op. posth. 73 and C-sharp-minor Impromptu no. 4, op. 66 – are stylishly done. In the latter, Trifonov is joined by his former teacher, Sergei Babayan, and the two engage in duet that’s exceptionally well-matched in articulation and tonal color.

Highlights of the Chopin-inspired piece that fill out the album include Grieg’s “Hommage à Chopin” (from Moods) and Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, both of which draw from opposing Chopin-esque influences and call on different strengths from Trifonov’s interpretive arsenal.

The biggest non-Chopin work here is Frederic Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin. Based on the A-major Prelude op. 28, it offers a crafty deconstruction/rearrangement of its primary materials, while also interpolating allusions to other Chopin pieces here and there. Mompou’s writing is harmonically pungent, though still plenty virtuosic. Trifonov is a sympathetic moderator, mining its expressive depths (like in the pensive eighth variation) while imbuing the more aggressive moments (such as the closing “Galope y Epilogo”) with plenty of heat.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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