Concert: Sibelius, Prokofiev & Nielsen - Trifonov/LSO/Gilbert pp London7/4/16

Sibelius: En Saga
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 2
Nielsen: Symphony No 4 "Inextinguishable"

Daniil Trifonov (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Cond: Alan Gilbert

7 April 2016, Barbican, London

I was determined to arrive in good time for this concert but still Barbican's confusing signage policy introduced unnecessary stress in queueing for my ticket.  Once seated, I began to relax into a concert of two very familiar works and one which I knew but with which I hadn't yet clicked. My seat at 45 degrees to the stage looking from the back of the piano to the front as it were, an ideal place to see the pianists face but not his hands!

The London Symphony Orchestra is not an orchestra I have heard often - under successive chief conductors my appreciation of the orchestra has been patchy.  Gergiev leaves me cold at the best of times but since his remarks in support of Putin's dreadful homophobic regime I have no time for the man.  Most of my listening is done via the radio and it still seems to me to be a patchy orchestra and so it was tonight.

Anyone who follows orchestral musicians on social media knows their ridiculous schedules in the UK and on tour.  Concerts, recordings, musical education and rehearsals and not just  for classical music, for modern music and film music and some very dubious crossover nonsense.  It is no surprise to me that articles like this appear and on most occasions when I hear the LPO and LSO, you can pick up on this in the music making.  Add in a talented guest conductor and you hear a difference but not all of the time.  Orchestra - like most commercial enterprises in this country need to work smarter not longer hours or pushing people to the brink.

En Saga is a hard piece to get right, transitions have to be very sharp but they weren't, playing needs to be very sharp and it wasn't.  Gilbert's conducting style erupts every now and it's hard to tell whether he is just enthusiastic or whether there's a urgent need for motivation or direction in some part of the orchestra. As usual with canny orchestral musicians there's a big push at the big climaxes and so it was that En Saga ended splendidly and the audience was very appreciative.  But one hoped this variability was through a concert version of 'third child syndrome' - where the middling piece on the programme gets least rehearsal time.

Prokofiev's  Second Piano Concerto was premiered in 1924 but is a resurrection and modernisation of a concerto written over 10 years earlier but lost in the Russian Revolution.  Like most people I've become almost blasé about the technical brilliance required for the Third Concerto but the paucity of recordings and what I've heard of the Second suggested to me that to get into this work one would need some effort.  The young pianist seated next to me suggested that the Second Concerto is a better concerto than the Third.  On the basis of this performance I'd agree.

Daniil Trifonov comes out to play - and some
Trifonov is something of a mystery, he's enigmatic, strained and almost possessed at the keyboard and yet relaxed and considered in interviews.  His record company image is bizarre and unappealing but his playing is magnetic, miraculous and mesmeric. Only Sokolov (and I imagine Argerich in her youth) have the same connection with the instrument.  Trifonov seems to envelope the piano with spidery limbs or pick away at a few keys with a frightening intensity.  It seems as though all music is within his grasp and he has a dangerous quality too. The Verbier performance of the Third Sonata is better than Gilels in some ways and certainly better I think than the composer could have mustered. .  He brought this concerto into marvellous life - forceful, direct and coherent. Gilbert led a rejuvenated LSO too - sharper and responsive to Trifonov's seemingly spontaneous approach to those piano led episodes.  Trifonov played the two cadenzas like minor sonatas and though the dubious Barbican acoustic favoured the orchestra not the piano when in full flight, I heard so much more than I've heard before.

Trifonov's energy was fearsome and his effort obvious from where I sat.  The applause turned into a standing ovation, the orchestra who tapped the pianist onto the stage, were lavish in their approval after a breath-taking display of virtuosity which never threatened to lose the orchestral link.  Trifonov was clearly relieved and elated at his achievement- as encore he played Pletnev's arrangement of the Silver Fairy Variation from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. 

Alan Gilbert has recently recorded all Carl Nielsen's symphonies with the New York Phil.  I haven't heard these - but I'm minded to try them on the basis of this finely judged and very well played performance - the LSO were clearly on most harmonious form for this symphony.  It was marvellous to hear them in full song.  What it lacked in rustic charm, it gained from the weight and the urgency and unanimity of the strings and brass.  I don't know whether its the hall but both winds and brass sounded weak.  The playing wasn't always secure either especially in the transitions (though less troublesome than the Sibelius).

The final few pages were magnificently controlled and probably for the first time in the evening one really noticed Gilbert's ear for detail and nuance.  He had a good night to be fair - at it's best in this piece.  It's not a radical reading and my loyalties for Vänskä will not be shifted yet on CD. Mena is doing great things with this work and the BBC Philharmonic can do rustic idyll and transcendental angststurm in their stride. My judgement for that orchestra being the best in the land is maintained after this concert.  But Trifonov - he's a league apart.

Alan Gilbert and LSO with two timpanists acknowledge applause for Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony


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