Last night I heard one of those totally memorable concerts at Carnegie Hall. With Valery Gergiev conducting, the Mariinsky Orchestra presented stirring renditions of music from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet Ballet and Shostakovich's First Symphony. But the true highlight for me was my first hearing of young Daniil Trifonov, recent gold medalist of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Trifonov is the real thing!
What struck me particularly was how Trifonov was smiling almost non-stop through the performance. He seemed to be so completely blissed out at being in Carnegie Hall, playing "the" Tchaikovsky Concerto with one of the world's best conductors and one of the world's best orchestras. He seemed to especially delight in the moments of tenderness interspersed with the barnstorming in this concerto. And that's the most lasting impression I take away from the experience – the incredible grace and tenderness of his playing. Even the big moments had a lightness that seemed unusual.
I grew up on recordings of this concerto (and occasional live performances) that tended to be very straightforward as far as rhythm and tempo go. This performance was anything but. Trifonov has a very individualistic approach. I'm not sure to what extent Gergiev influenced this, but my past experiences of hearing him conduct suggest that he is also prone to great variations in tempo and dynamics in order to bring out the dramatic extremes of the music. It seemed at times as if the sprawling first movement was an epic symphonic poem, with some passages slowing to nearly a crawl and diminished to nearly a whisper. None of the big, loud moments failed to come off – Trifonov is up for the pounding octaves when called for, although he never really "pounds" – but the quiet moments were the most memorable for me, and the second movement was a total dream, with his playing in the mini-scherzo enclosed within the andantino of a feather lightness that was amazing.
Trifonov played two encores, so tumultuous was the reaction: Chopin's Waltz in Eb, Op. 18, and Liszt's Campanella variations.
The orchestra's playing was no less brilliant and varied, and the ovation after the Shostakovich prompted them to two encores as well: Liadov's Baba-Yaga, and Tchaikovsky's Polonaise from Eugene Onegin.
In all, it was a night to remember. I paid a quick visit to Trifonov's website on returning home. Hard to believe he is only 20! He already plays like a mature master. And he has some recordings out… must hear them.