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A concert that lives up to its promise: Trifonov rules at NSO

Daniil Trifonov, romantic pianist, filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. (Deutsche Grammaphon)
Daniil Trifonov, romantic pianist, filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto. (Deutsche Grammaphon)
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It’s nice when a concert feels like an event: the crowded hall, the sense of anticipation. It’s also nice when it lives up to its promise. Audience members came for Daniil Trifonov, the hipster poet of the piano, who caressed the keys until they yielded music that was like a sinuous being of its own. They stayed — the ones who did stay — for rich and vivid Shostakovich, played by the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gianandrea Noseda without any soloist.

We’re not used to seeing the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this full. But Trifonov, just shy of 28, is the latest piano phenomenon, the don’t-miss-him musician of the moment. This was his third appearance with the NSO. Though he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 and has been something of a Wunderkind ever since, he seems to have reached a new level of stardom.

He also, to judge by his performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, has reached a new level of maturity. That may be a facile judgment to pass on someone whose performances have aroused so much passion in the hearts of piano lovers for years, and who has had such a recognizable style since his first appearance in the D.C. area eight years ago: a fluid, gentle, romantic touch, and the gleeful and almost wanton accretion of rapid notes that evoke something greedy in their abundance and delight. But on Thursday, he seemed to have shifted into an even higher gear, communicating ease, delight and dreamy intoxication without ever loosening his hold or making a false step. The 35-minute piece flew by, without bombast from soloist or supportive orchestra, which Noseda kept low and light, and Trifonov kept finding ways to make this music seem like something entirely new, a mercurial entity enticing listeners along, through the extended dreamscape of the second movement to the moment, at its end, when he groped his way toward wakefulness before plunging into the new day of the third. He followed up with an encore that sounded like Beethoven, but with a twist — a twist that lay entirely in his rapid-fire performance of it, which made it sound exposed and breathless and new. It was the finale of Beethoven’s 18th Piano Sonata.

Daniil Trifonov: a pianist ahead of his time.

Beethoven is something of a calling card for Noseda, who gained his first burst of sustained international attention with a BBC Philharmonic recording of the symphony cycle that set records for downloads at the time. On Thursday, he showed the restraint and fluidity of his best work, an instinct for lightness and crispness that the orchestra more or less followed, more or less dutifully. What woke it up, it turned out, was not Trifonov, but Dmitri Shostakovich. Although many years have passed since Mstislav Rostropovich recorded Shostakovich symphonies with the NSO, some of his passion for this repertoire remains in the group’s genetic code, and Noseda, whose first major post was a long-term training session as principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev, is equally on home turf. The Sixth is a beautiful symphony, starting with a slow building ache and ending with a circus that sounded light-fingered and wholehearted, and from the first notes it was clear that the NSO was in a different sound world, richer and more colorful, between the shrillness of the piccolo and the depths of the darker instruments capped off with gentle blows of the timpani. The two halves of the evening seemed almost unrelated, but both were well worth the visit.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday evening.