Programmes exploring collective and individual strife predominate at the Salzburg Festival this year. Conforming to the trend, a concert from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Andris Nelsons that featured two works composed either side of the Russian Revolution was a fitting contribution to the ongoing celebrations of the 100th anniversary of that event. Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, completed in 1913, here presaged the flurry of avant-garde writing that would soon flow from the pens of Russian composers, while Shostakovich's “Leningrad” Symphony (1940) served as a prime example of Soviet era socialist realism. Pianist Daniil Trifonov joined Nelsons to give this concert a distinctly youthful feel.

Daniil Trifonov, Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic © Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli
Daniil Trifonov, Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli

In the end, youth was a hindrance rather than a virtue in this testosterone-driven performance which sought more than anything to sock the audience between the eyes. Trifonov's moody vision of the Prokofiev was laid out early on in an over-indulgent delivery of the dreamy opening bars. He also rendered the fiendish five-minute-long cadenza that follows characteristically theatrical, swaying on his stool and brooding over his keyboard, but unable to distract from the fact that this was an approximate delivery of that passage. Coordination with the orchestra never felt like a priority, and players struggled to follow his unpredictable lead.

The pianistic spray of semi-quavers in the Scherzo was more precisely conveyed. And in the Intermezzo that follows, Trifonov found an array of affecting colours, from icy glissandi to a grotesqueness in sassy twitches. There were, indeed, plenty of individual moments to enjoy – more of a problem was that a lack of connection between the work's constituent parts meant that Prokofiev's successive strips of contrasting sound could not be strung together. The  Concerto, written while the composer was a conservatory student, is arguably intended more than anything as a display of virtuosic skill. But, when players overindulged in opportunities for such display, the work's overall machine-like impact was lost.

Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli
Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli

Things got off to a better start in the Shostakovich. The Allegretto opened with a brisk and optimistic vigour, and the "invasion theme", too, had a ripe simplicity suggestive of dawning spring, so that its eventual smothering in the ensuing onslaught was all the more dramatic. Spread across the full breadth of the Festspielhaus's expansive stage, with a battery of brass placed on a platform stage right, the brawny Philharmonic were whipped into a deafening howl of rage at the climax of the passage that, apart from being uncomfortable on the ear, was nothing short of thrilling. Was it too much? It didn't feel so at the time.

But, perhaps inevitably, tension and focus dropped thereafter, and the orchestra never seemed to fully recover. The solo bassoon that followed the invasion theme meandered aimlessly. The often piquant Moderato was unusually drab. There were pockets of colour to enjoy, particularly whenever, for more introspective moments, Nelsons conjured what became a favourite smouldering sound in nutty lower strings, gorgeously applied in the evocation of a Leningrad twilight at the start of the Adagio. But, yet again, it was Nelsons' constant search for colour at the expense of overall structural clarity that robbed this performance of drive and caused it to drag. While players, noticeably glued to Nelsons' every gesture, mustered requisite energy for the triumphant C major ending, there was the underlying sense of the orchestra crawling over the finish line. We, too, were happy to have finally arrived there.