Music by Antonín Dvořák was included on Ludovoc Morlot's first-ever programme leading the Seattle Symphony, which took place in October 2009. At the time – two years before coming on board  as music director – Morlot was a visiting conductor, and he offered the barest sampling of his thoughts on Dvořák (three of the Legends).

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

Now the Czech composer is the subject of an in-depth focus by way of a mini-Dvořák festival with which Morlot and the SSO are launching their new season. With the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, respectively, to anchor each of the three programs over the first several weeks of the season, the surprise is meant to lie not in the repertoire itself but in the Czech's mates: the non-Dvořák items that have been selected to fill out each programme and serve as implicit counterpoint to the big symphonies. So the New World will share the evening with John Adams and emigré composer Erich Korngold, the Eighth with Dutilleux and Rachmaninoff. The Seventh, meanwhile, capped last night's concert after a rich serving of Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

Indeed Morlot homed in on the harmonic boldness and quasi-Wagnerian raptures of lyrical ecstasy in the slow movement, a highlight of this account of the Seventh Symphony. The  interplay of lilting rhythms and aggressive accents in the folk-tinged aspects of the Scherzo in particular invited some intriguing comparisons with Tchaikovsky's use of Ukrainian idioms in his First Piano Concerto from the previous decade.

Yet overall the refreshing impression I took away was not of Dvořák's eclecticism but of his originality. Even in the more rhetorically driven D minor pathos of the outer movements, Morlot coaxed the musicians to pour on splashes of individual colour (as in the woodwind's expressive triplet roulades in the finale). It was a relief not to have this work presented as Dvořák "trying at" Brahms – the surest mark of a conductor who fails to get Dvořák. Leading the players without a score, Morlot seemed to have internalised this music, its message of unassuageable grief and resignation tempered with flashes of uplifting beauty.  

Another indication of Morlot's intuitive sympathy for Dvořák was the natural, uncontrived flexibility of phrasing of musical statements – again, most especially in the Poco adagio. More of that would have been welcome in the opening interpretation of Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude, which needed a touch more bloom for the love music and Prize Song, more fire for the climax right before the grand final peroration.

Otherwise, this was an animated, glowing account, stately and yet well aware of the intricacy of inner lines. Their plushness showed how far the strings have advanced under Morlot, and the fullness of sound gave the lie to one cliché that has started kicking around: that Morlot has been turning the SSO into a "French orchestra." It was interesting, in fact, to contrast this programme with the all-French fare of the Paris-themed gala opening concert from last weekend – not just  the obvious differences of repertoire but the remarkable versatility of the musicians.

And compatibility: a quality essential  to partner with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist for Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. What makes that such a challenge is the same factor that ultimately – beyond the stunning, seemingly more-than-human technique at his disposal – makes Trifonov a brilliant musician: his in-the-moment devotion to the piece at hand.

Trifonov is able to make this warhorse come alive in the most unexpected and alluring ways. And that carries danger for his partners: throughout the Concerto he made split-second decisions – a touch more rubato here, an aggressive lurch forward there – that required the utmost give-and-take from the players. Aside from a few minor misalignments in the opening movement, the result was electrifying.

Trifonov, lanky but hunched over dramatically, as if listening for what the keys have to tell him, assumes nothing about a concerto I'd have been tempted to say is overplayed – if his very playing hadn't proved me wrong in my tracks. Take the liquid inflection of his arpeggio sweeps soon after his entrance, or the almost giddy scherzando spirit he brought not just to the Andantino's interlude but to parts of the outer movements. Especially outstanding is Trifonov's command of the melodic line in Tchaikovsky. He infuses this with personality in a way that avoids sounding mannered or ego-driven.

Just as important is the pianist's theatrical flair, which is what made his partnering with the SSO so captivating. Forget the conventional model of concerto as a face-off of individual and the collective: particularly in the Andantino, Trifonov performed a series of pas de deux and operatic duets. And even amid the breakneck rush of the final pages, his virtuosity made it clear that what matters for Trifonov is the music.

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