The Sydney Symphony Orchestra scored a major win when they engaged Daniil Trifonov to visit for three orchestral concerts and a solo recital. And what better debut for the young Russian pianist than Sergei Rachmaninov’s first opus, the Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor? Trifonov has performed the complete cycle of Rachmaninov concertos several times in recent times; his fame in this repertoire is such that his playing of the Third Concerto in D minor can already be enjoyed in four different performances on YouTube.

How does one explain the extraordinary success of the Trifonov phenomenon? For one thing, while his musicality and technique places him squarely in the august circle of world-class pianists, he has managed to maintain his own personality. I have never seen an artist rush on stage with such eagerness as I witnessed Trifonov do on this occasion. He greets both orchestra and audience with an engaging smile which radiates confidence, warmth and genuine pleasure. However, by the time he is seated at the keyboard, his body language changes; he becomes utterly focused on the task ahead and the listeners are fully drawn into his aura.

His artistry is exuberant in the extreme, showing no sign of him pacing himself, as so often seen with veteran touring musicians. This intense physicality is attractive, but his musicality goes much further, for Trifonov is fully committed to every chord and every melodic line. He plays with a manic intensity, seldom seen since the days of the late Lazar Berman’s heroic and ultimately always victorious battles with the material. Trifonov’s upper torso leans ahead in a surprisingly steep angle, as if he would want to hear and check the quality of every sound before it actually leaves the instrument. His sinewy, long fingers seem to sense the shape, length and character of the notes even before playing them, and thus, his touch on the keyboard is perfectly capable of both ‘tenderness and also the demonic element’, as Martha Argerich is reputed to have said.

The audience was privileged to witness both extremes of this artistry. Trifonov threw himself into the opening cadenza of the first movement, bursting with an effervescent energy, and then proceeded to maintain it throughout the movement with no visible effort. Rachmaninov’s piano writing in this very early (although later heavily revised) work is already characteristically dense and technically extremely challenging. It regularly demands seven or eight notes to be played simultaneously, and to make things even harder, the duration of some of those notes may well vary. In contrast, the slow movement’s lonely soliloquy in the piano part felt intimate and supple, ably supported by the orchestra’s discreet accompaniment. The same dreamy sense of intimacy made the musical dialogue between the gentle string melody and the solo part’s commentary memorable in the middle section of the finale (in the Allegro ma non troppo section), a welcome oasis in an otherwise wild, dance-like movement.

As evidence of thoughtful programming, the performance of the concerto was bookended by symphonies of two further young Russian composers. The concert opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1, one of the wittiest exercises in the classical style anywhere in the 20th century, and finished with another Symphony no. 1, this time by Dmitri Shostakovich.  

The charm of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony never misses its target and it is rightly an eternal favourite with the audience. The orchestra performed it with visible enjoyment under the direction of Gustavo Gimeno, making his debut performance in Australia. Gimeno’s conducting is strikingly elegant, in a rather audience-pleasing way; his confident, always easy going gestures allowed the music to flow freely. It was a solid performance (after all, the experienced musicians of the SSO could play it with their eyes closed), without offering a memorable interpretation of the work.

Shostakovich’s graduation piece for the Leningrad Conservatory, his First Symphony, fared much better. This work is a spectacular showcase for instrumental and sectional solos and the individual excellence of the players fortified the strength of the ensemble, and thus, the performance. Many of the composer’s trademark characteristics, his acerbic wit and propensity for gloom, banal marches and triumphant climaxes, dark tones and sprightly sentiments, public rhetoric and private grief can be traced back to this early and rarely played work.

Three early works by three extremely talented young Russian composers… all of them written or finalised within a brief period of less than a decade –  some of the most tumultuous years in Russian/Soviet history. How remarkable that despite all the bloodshed and the world-shattering changes in such a mighty but ruined country, artistic talent remained to be recognised and nurtured there, and its fruit passed on for generations to come.