Wunderkind Russian piano virtuosi are no novelty in European concert halls, easy fodder for record labels and orchestral marketing departments. Artistic seriousness and subtle interpretive skill are a harder sell. Daniil Trifonov made a splash when barely out of his teens, hailed as the next great Russian promise at the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky piano competitions in 2011. But he has established his reputation with intelligent and original interpretations that belie a maturity beyond his tender years.

Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

This week the pianist closed his season-long residency at the Berlin Philharmonic with a performance of Scriabin’s Piano Concerto. Trifonov perhaps identifies with his compatriot Scriabin, praised in his time as a unique and eccentric piano virtuoso. The composer only managed one piano concerto in his short life, which he later disregarded as juvenalia, merely a prelude to Mysterium, the synesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk he left unfinished at his death.

Trifonov obviously disagrees, and his performance imbued the piece with plenty of passion and belief. However, he couldn’t quite make the killer argument for the work’s resurrection. Heavily indebted to Chopin, the concerto is harmonically rich, full of brooding dark timbres and knotty instrumental writing. Trifonov’s interpretations are sophisticated and multi-layered, yet the intricate piano part was often subsumed into a dense and opaque orchestral sound. It was only in the encore, Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9 no.1, where the pianist really brought out the composer’s hidden depths.

Dmitri Shostakovich also first found success as a pianist, before realising as a young man that his talents lay elsewhere. Conductor Andris Nelsons, like Trifonov a much-hyped child prodigy growing into the promise of his earlier years, completed the evening’s programme with the composer’s Symphony no. 11, “The Year 1905”. On the surface, this is one of the composer’s more overtly representative and programmatic works. However, the symphony can also be heard in purely musical terms, with strong, characterful layers of sound that interlock, erupt and butt up against each other in an expertly crafted piece of sonic drama.

Nelsons emphasised the contrasts between the held-back and measured piano thematic statements and the forte tutti sections which exploded with an almighty roar. He brought out the expansive large-scale structure of the work and created a single sonic gesture over the symphony’s 65 minutes. His bold interpretive choices bore rich fruit, for example the jaw-dropping sotto voce viola melody at the beginning of the third movement. Whilst a large-scale conception of the piece can lead to individual sections being left somewhat cold and lifeless, all sins were absolved in the overwhelming finale, with gigantic “death bells” bringing this mammoth work to a devastating tumult.