Daniil Trifonov’s dynamic first bars in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major primed the Tonhalle audience for terrific things to come. Fairly quickly, the young Russian showed himself entirely absorbed by his work. When his fingers flew over the keys, the effect was explosive, but his accuracy − spot on in every instance − made the piano seem as if it simply had a mind of its own.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede

Trifonov often bent tightly over the keys, his forehead some eight inches from the ivories such that he looked like a hunchbacked, mad scientist conjuring up an experiment, his shock of silky hair bounding from side to side. He appeared all but oblivious, in fact, to the eye contact Kent Nagano sought to make with him, and curled over on his bench in marked contrast to Andreas Janke, the physically disciplined and very tall concertmaster who sat straight as an arrow just behind him. Given Trifonov’s uncanny posture, I was surprised that his alignment with the orchestra could be as tight as it was.

Yet the concerto’s second movement, disappointedly, was played much too slowly. While perhaps meant to imbue the Largo with an exaggerated sense of the tragic, such faltering tempo made the music’s tightly woven hand into a muslin cloth that let water through, forfeiting some of the score’s melodic integrity. The orchestra even threatened to unravel around that pace, whose dynamic was diluted to a degree neither promising nor lyrical, but simply lugubrious.

Fortunately, the third movement Rondo was a refreshing and full-bodied wake-up call. The electric charge that ran through Trifonov’s fingers was nothing short of exhilarating, and even Nagano was seen to be seriously stomping his left foot. What’s more, the thematic dialogue the pianist shared with the players was as musically uplifting as it was technically perfect. Indeed, peering down from the clouds that decorate the Tonhalle’s ceiling with portraits of composers, Beethoven seemed to grace us all with an approving nod.

After the interval, Oliver Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations from the Beyond) was a similar inspiration. In eleven episodic scenes, the score alternates moments of thick, bombastic textures with what might best be described as “cosmic” interventions, each end of the spectrum pulling on a family of instruments that optimally suits the drama. What’s more, the work includes calls of birds whose unique sounds the composer/ornithologist had gleaned from the Australian forest, and unmistakably point to a form of experience with the vast cosmos and that has been linked to Messiaen’s strong religious conviction. Written 1987-91, this was the composer’s last work.

No question, the composer’s detailed depictions of nature make Éclairs sur l'au-delà a highly complex work. When conductor Zubin Mehta premiered it in New York in 1992, he contended that its instrumentation was subject to random choices; citing “rhythm-less bars which the woodwinds play by themselves without my giving them a rhythmic impulse. The birds are self-explanatory. Everything else is not.” While the work demands a large orchestra, Messiaen rarely engaged all the instruments at once, giving moments of luminescence that solely belong to the various instrument groups, and show them off to their great advantage. A gigantic woodwind section excelled in the cacophony of the ninth scene, which was nothing short of a great avian feast, but I’d be hard put to fault any orchestra seat, really, so consistently seamless was the players’ rapport with the conductor. The variations, temperament and tonality of each of the alternating movements made up a body that was utterly sublime in its beauty, and entirely convincing in its myriad sound landscapes.

In sum, Messiaen’s vast work enthralled, quickened, gave pause for thought, and gave ground for great expansion. It would seem the perfect pendant to the start of a new year – infused as it was, not only by a vast confluence of interwoven sounds, but as a multi-faceted lesson either for the practice of music or of our daily lives. Such expression might serve as a model for exploration in both.