Overplayed it may be, but that clearly doesn't stop Daniil Trifonov from relishing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1. He bounded onto the platform, Vladimir Jurowski launched the orchestra into that biggest of Tchaikovsky melodies within moments and Trifonov was clearly at home from the word go. There was no question: here was a pianist who was loving every minute.

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

The striking thing about this work is that it's more a concerto for Orchestra and Piano than it is for Piano and Orchestra: that Big Theme is first played by the orchestra, with the almost equally famous cascade of big piano chords serving as accompaniment. The pattern recurs through the long first movement: an orchestral theme starts, then the piano intervenes with a “look at me”. In this context, there were three things that made Trifonov's performance into something to savour. The first was that every one of these interventions had a defined and different character: whether it was big octave chords rumbling up the keyboard, an outburst of rhapsodic lyricism, impish quicksilver or any of the nuances in between, the intent was transparent. The second was a feeling of utter security in his phrasing: at whatever speed, the evenness of the ripples of notes created silk-smooth legato and precise dynamic control gave that sense of a phrase ending precisely where it should: I recall one particular delicate phrase ending in a single pianissimo top note that was sheer perfection. And finally, the timbre of the Fazioli piano was good throughout the range: I've had my problems with the acoustics of piano concerti at the Royal Festival Hall in the past, but not here.

Trifonov is a severe presence at the piano. His back is ramrod straight and he is utterly fixed on his instrument: there was no visible interaction with conductor or orchestra. And I'm sorry to say that I've seen Jurowski and the London Philharmonic on far better form than they were last night. It was not so much that there were many things wrong; rather, it was a case of missed opportunities: soaring themes that didn't reach high enough, horn calls that didn't quite take us to bygone hunting days, rapid-fire passages which had bite, but in insufficient depth.

The exception to this was the very impressive playing of the principal woodwind players. Throughout the evening, principal flute Juliette Bausor had plenty of opportunity to show off her instrument and she took the chances with verve, giving silvery sweetness with a lovely injection of character into the long notes. Guest principal clarinet Shirley Brill was equally effective in adding colour to her phrases, and the many sections of music where both combined were very special. Oboist Ian Hardwick and bassonist Jonathan Davies had fewer chances to shine, but gave indications of similar quality.

With a concert programme focused on Stravinsky's homage to Tchaikovsky, the second half consisted of the rarely played music from the 1927 ballet The Fairy's Kiss. While, on the evidence of this performance, I would love to see the ballet, I'm unconvinced that this music works as a concert piece. For sure, there is plenty of lovely Tchaikovskian melody, combined with trademark Stravinsky touches of rhythmic interest, dissonances, clever orchestration. But to my ears, this is a work designed for the narrative to be carried by the dancers, not the musicians, with an overall shape that was hard to follow. The result was a series of interesting divertissements rather than a coherent whole; Stravinsky's orchestrations of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened the concert, felt similarly directionless.

Trifonov fans and woodwind lovers will have left this concert more than satisfied. Stravinsky lovers might have hoped for better.

***11