A genius and a miracle: these descriptions hardly do justice to one of the most beloved young pianists of our time, Daniil Trifonov. Now the artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, Trifonov has become a favorite on the programs of nearby Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, his annual appearances attracting large, enthusiastic audiences. This was certainly the case this weekend as Trifonov and the Philadelphians, under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented a four-day tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven in his 250th birthday anniversary year. In a program that also featured two fascinating works by women composers of the golden age of classical music, Trifonov was featured in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major on Thursday and Friday, and the Emperor Concerto (no. 5 in E flat major) on Saturday and Sunday.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta | DG
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

Following Nézet-Séguin’s dynamically rich reading of Lili Boulanger’s D'un soir triste, Trifonov and the orchestra provided a nuanced interpretation of the first piano concerto in the Beethoven catalog (it was actually the third piano concerto he composed, following a starter concerto when he was a teen and another work which eventually was anointed as no. 2).

Trifonov is known for his subtle but impassioned performances of Chopin and other Romantic era masters. His superb interpretive and technical skills are enhanced by a shy, self-effacing manner and sweetness of disposition in an era in which on-stage personalities can become tiresomely theatrical, bordering on the flamboyant. The sincerity and love of music that pours out of his playing can be read in the authenticity of his expression, which sometimes suggests the music is whispering a little joke to him or is unveiling a spiritual mystery.

At Friday’s matinee, Nézet-Séguin balanced the C major concerto’s three movements with art and sensitivity. The first movement was a little slow in taking shape, though the pianist’s touch was nimble and sure. This was Beethoven the classicist, not the iconoclast, yet there are plenty of surprises which must have startled listeners at its premiere. The stately second movement, which features some lovely clarinet writing, and the buoyant finale unfolded with more fire and opportunities for Trifonov to display his art on jubilant runs of notes that take off like birds in flight.

At the Friday performance, Trifonov’s encore was the Polonaise in E minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of JS Bach and a renowned improviser. In the spirit of improvisation, the pianist took every imaginable liberty with this fluffy neo-rococo trifle, pouncing on the keys, springing back, with the expression of an imp who wants to get every last bit of tom-foolery out of a prank before being caught. He even deliberately left off the last note, which caused many present to giggle in delight.

In Saturday evening’s performance, it was the Emperor which shone as the program’s central jewel. Beethoven wrote his five piano concertos with himself in mind as soloist and was not circumspect about showcasing his unique virtuosic abilities. Stocky and muscular, he was physically suited for the punishing demands of this imposing work. Would Trifonov, a slender young man known for his dreamy romantic cadences, be up to the challenge?

The answer was resoundingly in the affirmative. From the piano’s bold cadenza-like entrance, to rapid attacks, and fingers brightly flying back from the keys, Trifonov displayed a formidable technique but more important, an interpretive depth appropriate to Beethoven’s most commanding creation for piano and orchestra. It is easy to be dazzled by a pianist’s pyrotechnics, but Trifonov also looked deeply beneath the surface and elicited moments of expression in which notes become messengers of feeling and ideas.

His greatness was especially evident in the great cool cavern of sound that is the Largo. Here, the artist was in his element, releasing bell-like tones, rising arcs of sound that slip away with exquisite control. After a quick leap from the second to the third movement, Trifonov played with jaunty ease, spinning out those delicious runs that play tag with the orchestra, and concluding with a bold affirmation that ties everything – music, performers, audience – together in euphony and joy.

The concerts concluded with Louise Farrenc’s Symphony no. 2 in D major, a large-scale work by a formidable French composer and educator of the mid-19th century. Despite overcoming unimaginable obstacles as a woman composer, Farrenc had a lifelong commitment to creating and performing music on a grand scale. By carefully shaping the dynamics and thoughtfully phrasing the orchestral sound, Nézet-Séguin molded this work into a compelling piece of symphonic literature enjoyable in the moment and worthy of further study and appreciation. Farrenc reflects an important part of the musical life of her time and deserves a place in memory and in today’s living concert venues.

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