Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, premiered in St Petersburg in 1913, is a monster. Over half an hour long, its four movements give the pianist only occasional respite. In the scherzo and elsewhere the torrent of semiquavers is relentless, in octaves, in both hands, and at times with wide leaps. Often mechanical in its obsessive drive, there is little lyrical relief after the Andantino opening. The original score was left in Russia when Prokofiev fled in 1918, and was burned, it is said, when the new tenants of his flat needed fuel in a freezing Petrograd. (Did suspicion not fall upon some Rachmaninov-lover, or a representative of professional pianists?). It is perhaps not surprising that it was once relatively neglected compared to its popular successor, the Third. But a new generation of pianists have taken up the Second, witness brilliant  recent recordings by Freddy Kempf, Beatrice Rana and Anna Vinnitskaya and its more frequent programming in concert. With this magnificent performance Daniil Trifonov set the seal on this trend, giving as complete and accomplished a performance as can be imagined, and making the work sound what it is – a modernist masterpiece, gripping from start to finish.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta | DG
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

Trifonov recently gave all the Rachmaninov concertos in London, so we know he has all the technique – and temperament – we associate with the great Russian lions of the keyboard of the last century. But here was something more, a complete identification with the Russian heart that beats in this piece, especially in the third movement Intermezzo. In the first movement, the expected development section is replaced by an extended piano solo so huge and demanding that we need a better word than “cadenza” – this really was rather more than a mere decorated ‘cadence’, for so great was its cumulative power in Trifonov’s compelling performance that the massive climactic re-entry of the orchestra sounded natural and inevitable. The scherzo seemingly held no terrors for this pianist, though if one thinks such diabolical skill could come only from some Faustian pact, one fears for his immortal soul. The helter-skelter coda of the concerto brought the house down, and many of the audience to their feet, but there was nothing superficial or crowd-pleasing about this playing for all its astonishing diablerie, but rather a complete trust in the composer’s innovative genius.

The concert opened and closed at a lower temperature than this inevitably, as we began further west along the Gulf of Finland with Sibelius’s En Saga, then sailed down and across the Baltic for Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. Many members of the LSO will have learned these two composers from the late Sir Colin Davis, and their idiomatic excellence in both was in safe hands with guest conductor Alan Gilbert as Nordic tour guide. The Sibelius tone poem was poetic and stirring by turns, the viola solo of Andriy Viytovich duetting with the low flute of Adam Walker standing out among many touching contributions from the players. Gilbert’s expert pacing, skill in transitions (so crucial in Sibelius), and his insistence on true pianissimi when called for, made this far more than a curtain raiser.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, nicknamed the “Inextinguishable”, can sometimes seem better called the “Interminable” unless the conductor really understands the sources of its power and can elucidate the structure. Even Robert Simpson’s book on the Nielsen symphonies warns of traps for the unwary conductor in this piece. Alan Gilbert recently recorded all the symphonies (as did the LSO with Davis a few years ago), and this experience showed in a very satisfying account. It was distinguished again by some fine playing, not least from principal clarinet Andrew Marriner in the second movement. The heroic assaults in the finale from the timpani were done with great fire – these really did seem inextinguishable, at least until the return of the aspiring theme from the opening movement reduced their clamour. Gilbert broadened the tempo (contradicting the score) at the final climax, and I have already had one email from a purist friend, a very knowledgeable Nielsen devotee, protesting at this ‘loss of energy’. I’m wondering how to tell him I really liked the effect.

So a very satisfying LSO concert, and one hopes Alan Gilbert will be reappearing as a guest conductor in the future. But for all the excellence of the first and last parts of the programme, it is surely the concerto performance that will live longest in the memory of most who were there. There was a bit of a rush at the interval to see when Trifonov is next at the Barbican – it’s in January, when he will give a solo recital ending with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrushka. Unless of course Mephistopheles has come for him by then.