Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was never properly performed in his lifetime. Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who played the work with the Houston Symphony exuding profound expression, makes this fact almost tragic – how Schumann would have reveled in this concert. Technically, the concerto did have a small, private première on 4 December 1845, with Clara Schumann as soloist. It was after a year that Schumann had spent regaining his strength in Dresden following a period of depression. The concerto started out as a Phantasie, but didn’t garner any attention until he added the “Intermezzo” movement and the lively finale and rounded it out into a full three-movement work.

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

But given the way Trifonov played the first movement, the following two are just added bonuses. As a soloist, Trifonov is the sort that visibly snaps in and out of different realities: after he graciously smiled and shook hands with the concert master, he sat down at the piano and might as well have achieved transport to another dimension. This does not mean, by any degree, that he doesn’t still connect with the audience or with the symphony while he’s performing. On the contrary, it is a marvel to watch, as if it were that initial private première we somehow gained exclusive access to. The exquisite clarinet solo in the first movement showed a delicate sensitivity to ensemble, too, in the midst of Trifonov’s seclusion.

Part of this effect happens because Trifonov doesn’t seem to breathe while he’s playing. He is very still, moving only forward and backward slightly, while his fingers peal up and down the keyboard. Fluidity defines his style. During an orchestral interlude in the Allegro vivace, Trifonov tilted his head, gazing at the ceiling, never coming out from his alternate musical galaxy until the last note, when he stood and bowed, smiling. After several curtain calls, he played one of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales as an encore, a piece that solidified his reputation for expression in quiet solitude.

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony followed the intermission, with Medtner (a younger peer of Rachmaninoff) acting as a neat transition into the lavish Russian experience. Like Schumann, Rachmaninov retreated to Dresden when he wrote this symphony from 1906 to 1907.

Under Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s empathetic direction, the Houston Symphony created swells of emotion, first creeping in as separate strands in the opening measures and building up together. Concert master Stephanie Jeong, visiting from Chicago Symphony Orchestra, belted out a rich solo and led the section with aplomb through its myriad of lyrical wanderings. The accelerating tempos in the second movement, a fiery Allegro molto, splintered for a moment across the sections, but Orozco-Estrada pulled it back together quickly. He’s an athletic conductor as much as he is a passionate and precise leader.

The Allegro vivace that closed this concert showed a new level of adeptness as the orchestral body navigated the strange middle fugue while still embracing the joyous peals rippling across the stage. It’s a movement that, perhaps most of all, feels almost folkish with the half-step three-note phrases and the two-note pick-ups that almost sound like embellishments. It ended big and elegant, making a full concert of molten expression across the board.