Coming into the Royal Festival Hall from a perfect May afternoon in London, the atmosphere was festive and positive and the matinee concert that drew us in from the warm sun, certainly created its own very brilliant glow, not least in the opening work, Nightride and Sunrise by Sibelius. A once neglected piece, perhaps due to its complexity of tone and unusual structure, it has increasingly been recognised for its poetry and freshness and given more regular outings. Ashkenazy, as part of his Sibelius series, certainly made a strong case for it, with the exposed orchestration wonderfully balanced and clearly delivered by the Philhamonia and the unexpected ending delicately poised.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

None of this Scandinavian subtlety prepared us for the onslaught that followed in the shape of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, performed by the young lion, Daniil Trifonov. What a performance this was, managing to combine delicacy, power, passion, spontaneity and rhythmic precision in a miraculous way. This is a piece that lives or dies on the commitment of its soloist. If played with classical restraint it sounds like any other late romantic concerto warhorse, but given this level of uninhibited élan, it becomes an overwhelming experience. With Ashkenazy securely steering proceedings with his pianists’ deep understanding of how to make the work shine, Trifonov was able to relax into his performance in a way that I haven’t heard for decades. 

In the vast first movement, Trifonov started with an unassuming simplicity which was nothing less than deceitful, because once the main dramatic Allegro began, the power was unleashed. In the central cadenza the effect was thrilling indeed, with the soloist appearing to have shot his bolt too soon, given the drama that unfolds, but as the music expands he showed us there was more and more to come. Not that it sounded like the piano was being abused and overplayed, Trifonov managed to produce all these bigger sounds within the confines of the instrument.

The slow movement was taken at a good swiftish tempo enabling the continued animation of the score to be maintained as it should, with little let up for the soloist. Trifonov was particularly crystalline in the scherzo-like middle section, his precise finger work carried the movement forward to its grander than grand, crowd-pleasing conclusion. 

Sibelius Fifth Symphony followed after the interval and here we were able to sample Ashkenazy’s pedigree as a true Sibelian, with perfectly judged tempi and acute awareness of the tight structure of this much revised work, which in its final form, ended up being all about transitions. The Philharmonia was on inspired form here, perhaps still in the afterglow of that adrenalin-fuelled Rachmaninov explosion, every section seemed to be on fire, with the thrilling final moments of the first movement being the highlight of the performance. Another highlight was the lead up to the famous final hammer blow chords. This is the trickiest interpretative moment in the piece, but Ashkenazy handled it perfectly,  with an appropriate broadening of the tempo that brought out a strong sense of ecstatic fulfilment in this most positive of symphonies.