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New Classical Tracks - Daniil Trifonov: a remarkable tribute to Rachmaninov

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Daniil Trifonov.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT - Last month when Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a massive outdoor Papal mass, he fulfilled a lifetime dream - well, sort of. "Before I wanted to become a conductor, I wanted to become the pope," Yannick declares. "That was my first dream as a child. So now I have the impression that it's coming almost full circle. I'm a conductor but conducting for the pope. And so that was something obviously very special for me but especially for all the musicians of the orchestra and being part of that extraordinary moment of peace and of unity and especially because of the message of this particular pope - so yes it was a great honor."

A native of Montreal, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has certainly had his share of honors, including three honorary doctorates. He's a notable opera conductor and has regular engagements with the Metropolitan Opera. He's also the artistic director and principal conductor of the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra and music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Earlier this month, he launched his fourth season as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra with music of Rachmaninov, featuring a riveting young Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov.

Trifonov, who was awarded the First Prize, Gold Medal and Grand Prix at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, is also featured on a new recording celebrating Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer who had a longtime affiliation with the Philadelphia Orchestra. "Oh, it's one of the most magical definitely aspects of - and perks even - of being the music director of this wonderful ensemble," says Yannick Nézet-Séguin. "Whenever we perform Rachmaninov together - we did the complete symphonies last year; the concertos, we almost did them all so far, even in just the few years that I've been the music director. And each time I marvel that there's this understanding of this music which is … due to the fact that actually the people from generation to generation were communicating their own knowledge of having worked with the master himself. And not only this - I think one important aspect of the story here is that Rachmaninov himself was in love with the sound of the orchestra at that time. And I believe that the sound is not really that different nowadays, and we're trying to cultivate the richness of that sound and all of the colors inside of it. And that means that it's a very special feeling whenever we start playing this music."

This new recording features variations Rachmaninov composed based on works by other composers. His most famous set of variations is the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which was written for and first recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, with Leopold Stokowski at the podium. Yannick explains how he and Danill approached this new recording of the Rhapsody: "It was very important for Daniil and I to have all the very small details and the interplay between the orchestra and the piano really apparent and coherent and very chamber-music-like because there's relatively few long lines and melodies in this piece. It's all about the micro events until we get to the famous 18th variation, where everything becomes this incredible melody. But up to that point, I think the vivacity of the playing is just to reflect the vivacity of the writing. and hopefully this is what the people will get from listening to it."

"Daniil is … a genius," Yannick continues. "Quite simply. But in the Rachmaninov, there is a feeling when he sits at the piano and starts playing that we are in the presence of Rachmaninoff himself. Now, it's hard to explain. Some people explain it because [Rachmaninoff] was born in Russia and then was very quickly abroad and felt maybe the nostalgia of living in the U.S. and being nostalgic about his home country. I think nowadays the world is very, very different than in Rachmaninov's time. And I think it's not only this that can explain his special feeling. But [Trifonov] has the complete vocabulary of the music which is not only the virtuosity and the power but also the most delicate moments, almost like a feather. And when we listen to Rachmaninov's own recordings - it's striking, all that contrast he has in his playing, and think Daniil is the same. And that was just … I felt a really, really great match with my orchestra."

As you listen to this new Rachmaninov recording, you'll quickly get the sense that this Great Russian composer had a gift for taking another composer's theme and making it his own. Yannick agrees. "I have to say that listening to the recording as a whole - this is what I had in my mind," he says. "I'm just thinking all of a sudden, 'Oh, yes. This is one of those composers who could really take one idea and transform it endlessly.' But also - maybe my favorite moment of the recording … it's not that it's not the Paganini Variations where I'm participating … but in the rest of the recording, the solo portion. I think the Chopin variations are especially beautiful and touching. And it takes already a very simple yet absolute masterpiece from Chopin and brings it to even greater or more detailed, finer layers of emotional feelings and context. And I think this is really a remarkable tribute to the genius of Rachmaninov."