United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2016 (8) – Beethoven, Mahler: Danil Trifonov (piano), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.8.2016. (SRT)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
The classical music programme at this year’s EIF is proving to be of an exceptionally high standard; the kind of standard that, a few years ago, I’d given up hoping for. Bringing the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra marks another peak, and we still have the Russian National, São Paulo, Minnesota, Rotterdam and Gewandhaus orchestras coming in the next week as high profile guests. Fergus Linehan, the EIF’s director, has set himself a very high standard to live up to.
I’d never heard the Swedish RSO in the flesh before tonight, but they’re a treat for the ears. Their sound is remarkably refined and very cultured; much more, to my ears, in the vein of the aristocratic-sounding Central European orchestras than their Scandinavian counterparts. Daniel Harding’s tempo for Beethoven’s first piano concerto was just that little bit slower than we’ve come to expect through the period-instrument orthodoxy, and the string sound was not just richer but also that little bit bigger. This was symphonic Beethoven, and all the better for it, evidenced by the rich climaxes and the satisfying heft to the finale.
And what of the young Russian firebrand at the keyboard? I’ve only ever heard Danil Trifonov in the flamboyantly virtuosic fare of Liszt, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, with whose roof-raising virtuosic fireworks he seems extremely comfortable; so I struggled to imagine what he’d sound like as a Beethoven soloist. In the event he was extremely well behaved, and arguably showed a whole new side of himself. Classically restrained and yet full of power, he seemed almost ideal for music that (to use a horribly simplistic trope) marks the turning point for its composer’s journey from the classicism of the eighteenth century into the Romanticism of the nineteeth. The showpiece moments, such as the launch of the first movement’s recapitulation, crackled with energy but within a framework of total discipline, and his slow movement pulled me up with just how elegant it was. Trifonov managed such a light, tripping tone for the finale that you’d have thought it was another pianist; Pires or Lewis, perhaps. It was pretty astonishing, in fact, and makes me wonder whether Trifonov is an even finer musician (and musical chameleon) than I’d previously imagined.
That aristocratic orchestral sound made for a remarkably rich Mahler 9. This was an orchestral palette to rank with the very finest, and Harding used it like a master to bring Mahler’s emotional landscape to vivid, pulsating life. The violins played the opening melody full of longing and redolent with passion, and throughout their tone simply sang in a way that made the whole soundscape gleam. If this movement is a farewell, then for Harding it’s a very fond one. It’s not sanitised, though: the brass, searing at the climax, always seemed ready to pull the music into malevolent oblivion, and the minor key episodes, which grow in strength as the first movement develops, felt like a genuine threat.
Harding’s vast experience in Mahler shone through in his unflinching grasp of the composer’s great spans, but with an ear for the big gesture and the ability to cut through the swathe of sound to bring out telling details, including the more gemütlich moments like the fleeting violin solos of the first movement, or the occasional sweet string episodes in the Ländler. That movement seemed perpetually to teeter on the brink of chaos, with swaggering brass and string playing that could, by turns, sound raw or refined (with some very cheeky rubato from the second violins), and the biting Rondo dissolved into a blissful central episode, where a beautiful trumpet solo was answered by smiling violins. Harding’s interpretation seemed to grow in stature as the symphony progressed – you’ll go a long way to hear the great string span of the finale sounding as richly emotive as we heard tonight – and the delicate shading of the closing pages is something that I won’t forget in a hurry. The audience sat in a rapt silence after the final chord died away, no one daring to clap and break the spell. That’s the finest tribute you can pay to any Mahler 9.
The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.