Sometimes, when hearing an instrumentalist’s debut with an orchestra on a tight schedule of concerts and rehearsals, an encore tells you even more about the quality of the soloist than the concerto that precedes it. Such was the case here, as young superstar Daniil Trifonov obliged a typically generous audience at Lincoln Center with Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s “Widmung”. Liszt’s writing here should easily enchant, and so it did, but rarely do pianists float it with such transfigured abandon, or with such flexibility that both apes and goes beyond the vocal ebb and flow of Schumann’s song.

Daniil Trifonov © Vadim Shults
Daniil Trifonov
© Vadim Shults

Such encores are only bestowed – or at least should only be bestowed – after good concerto performances, and it was Trifonov’s Prokofiev that this second subscription concert from the New York Philharmonic was built around. The “Widmung” perhaps reflected a further confirmation of the transformative journey of Prokofiev’s concerto, a journey away from troubled doubt to something much more confident, even triumphant.

With most young pianists such as Trifonov, the recent winner of both the Rubinstein and International Tchaikovsky Competitions, prodigious technical prowess is now taken for granted. Among even this rigorously-trained cadre Trifonov stands out: Prokofiev’s third concerto is a fearsomely difficult challenge, yet such was the uninhibited command with which Trifonov played that it was easy to forget such potential strains. Much more important are the ends to which Trifonov puts his dexterity, for it is his playing’s emotional heterogeneity that ought to propel him into the big leagues.

Hunched over the keys to almost Gouldian extent, with low arms, demonstrative hair, and an endearingly crumpled suit, in this Prokofiev Trifonov married a fluid, natural rubato to a true sense of wit and fantasy. In the first movement in particular he seemed much more willing to indulge this music’s more grotesque side than Gilbert’s orchestra (which, as with Leif Ove Andsnes’ Beethoven in the season’s opening programme, might have gelled better with the soloist).

Each of the slow movement’s variations was distinctively characterised, whether in the romanticised childishness of the theme, in the robotised, falling-over-itself quality of the clumsy second variation, or in the stasis of the third. Trifonov’s tone, best shown off in the third movement, is notably bright but lacks the shallowness of some of his young – and not so young – peers, and, crucially, it is firmly controlled by the dictates of the music’s implied colour. He is impulsive, certainly, and might at times linger an ounce too much over slower passages, but let us hope that the sense of intrigue at the heart of this performance continues as his career builds. This was an impish, outstanding performance of a concerto that suffers heavily from anything approaching the routine.

Alan Gilbert surrounded the Prokofiev’s mighty handfuls of notes with works from two of the “Mighty Handful” of 19th-century Russian nationalist composers. Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is classic “Russian Night” fodder as an opener, and what this performance lacked in detailing it made up for with an appropriately coarse, visceral intensity. The Philharmonic’s archetypally mellow winds took their ghoulish solos well, although greater depth of tone from the violins, such as they found later in the concert, would have enlivened things a little more.

The second half of the concert was given to Rimsky-Korsakov as a composer rather than orchestrator. As much as Gilbert attempted to impart directorial vim from the podium, Scheherazade only periodically transcended its enervating score, which in its retelling of only a few of the thousand and one Arabian Nights is the very definition of episodic. Its orientalisms layered upon orientalisms grate a little bit, especially if indulged as they were here.

Still, there was much to enjoy in this performance, particularly in concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s solos and typically subtle work from cellist Carter Brey. Gilbert whipped up the excitement, especially in the final movement of this symphonic suite, but ultimately this performance needed a little more of the fairy tale and the precariousness of Scheherazade’s mission which make great renditions of this work. As Dicterow intoned yet another of Scheherazade’s pleas one wondered whether it might have been a more fitting use of Trifonov to rearrange the old overture-concerto-symphony format so beloved of programmers, and have him close the concert.