Daniil Trifonov, fleet of finger, curled over the piano keyboard as if creating his own bubble of sound around the instrument — which, in fact, he was. It was Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and Trifonov was the main event on the Montreal Symphony’s visit to Washington, first clearing space around the key with his hovering body, then flashing and darting up the keyboard in the Prokofiev Third Concerto like a fish leaping upstream while the orchestra, under Kent Nagano, lumbered along behind him.
Trifonov seared his way onto the scene a few years ago and has retained every bit of the spark that brought him to the “it” spot in the hot-young-soloist pantheon. His Prokofiev was as arresting and idiosyncratic as his other work in Washington has been, with distinctive choices about tempos and phrasing, although slightly muted — less by familiarity than by the presence of the orchestra, which picked up on some but not all of his leads and sounded generally a blunt instrument next to the precision tools of Trifonov’s hands, playing so fast they finally blurred into what seemed a giant mass moving over the keys.
Familiarity didn’t dull the encore, the Rachmaninoff arrangement of the Bach Gavotte that is something of a touchstone encore for him (he played it at his last Washington Performing Arts appearance on the Hayes piano series in 2013, as well). If he plays it as brilliantly as that, he could play it every day and no one would complain.
It has been 30 years since Washington Performing Arts presented the Montreal Symphony, and it was nice to see the musicians back: a nod to a time when North American orchestras traveled more often and guest appearances weren’t limited to the biggest names on the international circuit. Molded by Charles Dutoit over a couple of decades, the orchestra has been led by Nagano since 2006, with — to judge by this performance — mixed results. There was some stridency, particularly in the winds, and some diffuseness of ensemble playing, and Nagano has a tendency to be a little flat emotionally when not involved in complexity — particularly in his slightly airless reading of Debussy’s “Jeux,” which opened the program.
But “Rite of Spring,” the final piece, compensated for moments of emotional flatness with some vivid playing. Nagano has always seemed to me at his best with music that moves a lot, and if this wasn’t the most elegant “Rite” I’ve heard, it had moments of freedom and vitality that got the audience roaring by the end of the night and earned two encores, Ravel’s “Pavane” and the Farandole from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” — a nice French counterweight to the Debussy at the end of a balanced program.
Next on the orchestra series of Washington Performing Arts is the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons on April 12.