Pianist Trifonov amazes with difficult concerto

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Every so often -- actually not very often -- an artist comes along who just knocks your socks off. I don't think I've used that expression in a lifetime of reviewing, but it's what came to mind Friday evening when debuting Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov played Prokofiev's "Concerto No. 2" with the Pittsburgh Symphony under guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier in Heinz Hall.

Prokofiev's second piano concerto is a fiendishly difficult piece, arguably the most difficult piano concerto in the standard repertory. Composed to showcase his own formidable keyboard skills and premiered just outside St. Petersburg in 1913, this concerto keeps the soloist in the forefront during nearly all the work's 31-minute length.

There's a long solo cadenza in the first movement -- containing thematic development and recapitulation. The second movement puts the piano part in perpetual 16th-note motion. With hardly a respite in the intermezzo that follows, the finale contains two more extended solo passages that get harder and harder.

This is a work that has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. It sounds too easy on records, and the 22-year-old Mr. Trifonov filled the bill in every way.

With spiderlike fingers, long hair flowing every which way and an intense expression at times reminiscent of a mad scientist, this winner of multiple major competitions flew through the hurdles with an air of sorcery appropriate to the Halloween weekend.

It should be noted that the work itself is all technique: virtuoso playing for the pianist and brilliantly clever harmonic surprises among the catchy melodies provided by the composer.

To what extent Mr. Trifonov possesses the line, clarity and sensitivity to deliver, say, Mozart or Chopin remains to be seen.

The orchestra had mostly an accompanying role, which was never less than adequately achieved, although Mr. Tortelier was not consistently clear in his beat.

The second half of the concert was devoted to another Russian work, Rachmaninov's "Second Symphony," premiered in St. Petersburg only five years earlier. In contrast to Prokoviev's concerto, Rachmaninov's symphony is noticeably conservative, filled with lush melodies and smoothed-over edges. It is an orchestral showcase, which Mr. Tortelier conducted with lots of histrionics. His beat was often amorphous, bearing little apparent connection with the music being played -- quite well, to be sure -- by the local orchestra.

Some of the work's potential sweep was lacking, but there were abundant gratifying solos among the woodwinds, impressive playing from the brasses and intermittent opportunities for concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley to shine on his newly acquired 1732 Bergonzi violin.

For his part, Mr. Tortelier provided a pleasant hour, without new insights nor enlightening moments of individuality.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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