Pianistic Fireworks from Daniil Trifonov at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky: Daniil Trifonov (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Rafael Payare (conductor)] Royal Festival Hall, London. 8.10.2015. (LB)

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op.40

                                  Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op.43

Mussorgsky orch. Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall this evening, in addition to being the continuation of a cycle of the complete Rachmaninoff piano concertos, showcased the musical prowess of two young gladiators, one at the piano keyboard, and the other wielding a baton.

Daniil Trifonov, now in his mid twenties, is a prizewinner of a clutch of prestigious international piano competitions and Rafael Payare, eleven years his senior and a product of the El Sistema programme in Venezuela, is currently chief conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. Trifonov is also the subject of a Nupen video, and though he is rapidly developing a career of some distinction, his idiosyncratic brand of musicianship seemingly polarises opinion.

The concert began with Tchaikovsky’s popular Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and Payare sought immediately to stamp his authority on both the orchestra and the music. He is a demonstrative and flamboyant conductor, and even if the boisterous music benefitted from a measure of bravado, the more lyrical thematic material was in danger of sounding perfunctory, lacking adequate depth of sound or complexity. It nevertheless proved to be an appropriate curtain raiser in a programme of romantic Russian music, effectively setting the stage for Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. 

Rachmaninoff enjoyed an enviable reputation as a virtuoso and from the many outstanding recordings he made, we know that the superlatives ascribed to his exceptional musical and technical facility were wholly deserved. Fortunately, his recorded performances also preclude the need to speculate about what might constitute the principled and faithful realisation of his music.

From the very outset it was clear that Trifonov’s performance of the rarely heard Fourth Piano Concerto was going to be anything but routine. His phenomenal command of the keyboard embodies many of the distinctive qualities attributed to Rachmaninoff, and he invests every note with total commitment, bringing the music alive in a captivating and persuasive manner. The first movement was dispatched with the utmost fire, the second was poetic and affectionate, and the Allegro vivace finale a dazzling display of virtuosity.

After the interval Trifonov returned to the platform to perform Rachmaninoff’s universally treasured Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and this ingenious set of variations was enchantingly realised, with the orchestra’s incisive contribution enabling a scrupulously well-integrated and scintillating performance.

Trifonov rewarded his audience with a dramatic and powerful account of Medtner’s Alla Reminiscenza, from Forgotten Melodies Op. 38 as an encore.

Once the ecstatic and noisy appreciation of Trifonov’s performance had subsided, and at a time when most conventional concerts would already have been concluded, the stage was reset for Payare and the Philharmonia Orchestra to launch into a performance of Ravel’s colorful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Just as he had done in the Tchaikovsky, Payare dispensed with his score in the Mussorgsky, but the real challenge he faced was to re-invigorate a piece of standard repertoire, to inspire the orchestra and to enthuse his audience. This virtuosic orchestration suited both the orchestra and conductor well, and the journey on which we were taken through Victor Hartmann’s pictures remained purposeful throughout; occasionally impatient, at other times meandering, but punctuated by some beautiful woodwind and brass solos, with the pair of harps providing attractive splashes of colour. The Philharmonia at full throttle is quite something to behold, and their truly heroic Great Gate of Kiev earned orchestra and conductor enthusiastic applause.

Leon Bosch

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