Pianist Daniil Trifonov, Nashville Symphony shine in Mozart’s masterpiece

Daniil Trifonov

By John Pitcher

Pianist Daniil Trifonov is a hot commodity in the classical music world.

In 2011, he became the first pianist in history to win back-to-back gold medals in both the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition and Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Now, he’s in constant demand as an orchestral soloist and has recorded his first CD for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.

This weekend, Trifonov is in Nashville, performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero wasted no time securing the Russian piano phenom for his orchestra, though interestingly (and gratefully) he resisted the urge of hiring Trifonov to perform one of his trademark knuckle-busting Russian concertos.

Instead, Guerrero is accompanying the lanky, boyish-looking virtuoso in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major. Mozart composed this magnificent work – his first mature masterpiece – when he was just 21 years old, so Guerrero thought it would be a neat idea to have the 22-year-old Trifonov play it. Certainly, the Mozart provided us with insights into Trifonov’s musicianship that we wouldn’t have gotten from a Rachmaninoff concerto.

For instance, we learned from Thursday’s opening night concert that Trifonov is an extremely poetic player whose interpretations combine grace and lucidity with lyricism of almost operatic intensity. His approach to the concerto’s opening measures – where the piano interrupts the orchestra fanfare in the second bar – was delightfully playful. As the first movement progressed, Trifonov’s playing became more animated as he engaged the orchestra in a dramatic dialogue.

Trifonov was at his level best in the slow movement, which he played with the immediacy and intimacy of an opera aria. He launched into the fleet finale with the unbridled energy of a racehorse leaving the gate. Throughout the performance, Trifonov swayed to the music, often bending low above the keyboard, always wearing an expression of pure ecstasy on his face. I’m not sure his expressions always match the emotions in the music – he tends to look the same way whether he’s playing Tchaikovsky or Mozart. But there’s no doubt he’s an exhilarating performer.

This weekend’s NSO program is jam-packed and features three other works, including another concerto. That would be Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, Op. 25, featuring NSO principal harpist Licia Jaskunas as soloist. Ginastera doesn’t treat the harp like some celestial instrument played by angels on clouds. Instead, he employs it at times as a kind of percussion instrument, with the harpist plucking aggressive chords and tapping out syncopated rhythms on the soundboard. Jaskunas played this demanding music with a deft technique and rhythmic vitality. Guerrero and the NSO provided dramatic and colorful accompaniment.

Thursday’s concert opened with Zoltán Kodály’s Suite from Háry János. This six-movement work is scored for a Wagner-size orchestra and explores every conceivable instrumental color. Guerrero and the NSO captured all the pomp, pageantry and magic of this fairy-tale score. They played every note with polish and precision.

Guerrero ended the concert with the evening’s most unusual (and entertaining) piece – Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonia India (Symphony No. 2). The piece features a large battery of traditional Mexican percussion instruments – a Yaqui drum, clay rattle, water gourd, deer hooves and butterfly cocoons – that produce sounds that are as exciting as they are exotic. Chávez’s Sinfonia is bright, rhythmic, joyful and infinitely danceable, and Guerrero and the NSO gave it a vibrant reading. The performance won a rousing ovation and brought the evening to an appropriately festive conclusion.