A warm sound filled the hall as the Lahav Shani gently coaxed the strings of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening introduction of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. With beautiful phrasing from the outset and a lightness akin to the music of Mozart, the audience knew immediately that they were in for a treat. Despite a slightly tentative second violin entry and a small lack of discipline in the first violins in terms of bow speed and articulation, the Philharmonic seemed at ease, playing as one.

Lahav Shani, Daniil Trifonov and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
© Eduard Uslee

Daniil Trifonov’s opening solo crept in before he dazzled with his customary sparkling scales echoing the same orchestral lightness of touch. Passagework emerged from nowhere and blossomed with an ascending flourish. Both soloist and conductor at times projected an intensity, especially in the quiet moments, where minimal movement created a tension waiting to be unleashed. This was a well-rehearsed performance full of contrasts, a partnership between equals, and the result was very exciting. The cadenza, full of colour, poise and elegance, was a joy.

The opening of the Largo seemed surprisingly slow, but Trifonov sustained a beautiful and extended line, each new phrase conveying an array of emotions, from pain, sorrow, wit, tenderness and joy, all within a matter of seconds. Effortless trills quivered. This music spoke directly to the heart and Trifonov’s interpretation persuaded me to change my mind about this sometimes neglected concerto, the first concerto Trifonov learnt as a child.

We almost tumbled into the third movement as we returned to the lightness of the first. An added cheekiness in the piano kept the RPO on their toes, almost as if they were playing catch-up, such was the unrelenting speed. The piano at times seemed almost jazz-like in its lyricism and fluidity of phrasing. Rising to their feet almost immediately, the Dutch audience showed their immense appreciation, and were rewarded with an encore of CPE Bach's Rondo in C minor.

Lahav Shani conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
© Eduard Uslee

After a short introduction by Shani, the RPO launched into Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, one of the hardest works in the orchestral repertoire. As one might expect from a conductor whose career started as principal bassist (with the Israel Philharmonic), Shani grounded the orchestral sound. His breadth of gesture, all without a baton, allowed especially the larger and lower instruments time to breathe and bring a roundness and warmth upon which the orchestra could weave their many and varied textures. Fabulously fruity trombones revelled in the climactic opening in contrast to a playfulness in the opening theme as it passed around the instruments.

Strauss gives the musicians a platform to shine. Wonderfully colourful woodwinds in the chromatic second movement were juxtaposed against the menacing and throbbing taunts of the euphonium and tuba. The violin solo, played with great panache by the departing leader, Igor Gruppman, matched the magnificent horn section who encapsulated so successfully the hero and his adventures. Astonishingly fast and furious triplet cymbal crashes were in complete contrast to the wistful cor anglais melody. All were given their moment of glory.

We welcomed the military precision from the snare and bass drum. This is definitely a work for the concert hall where the audience can witness first-hand the joy exuded by all on stage. The RPO clearly love playing for Shani and the audience left with a spring in their step after an unexpected rendition of Schubert's March Militaire to top a New Year’s Concert to remember.