I settled into my seat at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night expecting to love the National Symphony Orchestra concert. Daniil Trifonov, the brilliant Russian pianist, was returning to the orchestra with the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, a showpiece for a virtuoso if ever there was one; and the conductor was Krzysztof Urbanski, who leads the Indianapolis Symphony and whom I’d liked a lot at his NSO debut in 2013.
“Like” and “love,” though, are facile terms for one’s relationship with a nuanced art form. Partway through the first movement, I remembered that I’ve always had an ambiguous aural relationship with Trifonov. The first time I heard him, I wasn’t quite sure how to describe the way in which I felt he’d gotten under my skin, the unevenness of his effect and the way that at times I felt his playing bored into my consciousness, almost too much, while at other times it left me cold. I felt similarly ambiguous about Thursday’s Rachmaninoff performance, and similarly unsure to what degree my reaction was objective. There is no question that he was doing something impressive up there, and there’s no question that there was a lot of great stuff happening between him and the orchestra and Urbanski’s slick motions. But for me it didn’t add up to an entirely cohesive performance.
I’ve described Trifonov’s pale, romantic-poet appearance before, and it seems to be a part of his persona as a performer. The concerto opens with a simple little tune that he made even simpler through quietness and vulnerability, his body nearly motionless, and he retained the sense of innocence, or near-passivity, even when the score explodes into what usually sounds like an ornate thicket of notes, but which here simply spooled off his fingers as an afterthought. This deliberate detachment, though for a dramatic purpose, may have colored the performance slightly too much, even when it was revealed to be no more than a pose: Once the piece was properly underway, physical restraint was left by the wayside and Trifonov returned to his more wonted and more melodramatic pose, his body curled over the instrument, face close to the keys.
There’s no doubt that Trifonov has technical ability to burn. This supposedly challenging work sounded easy for him. But while he has the equipment for the piece, I was left questioning whether it was the best fit for his temperament: Neither his sound nor his approach are robust, in a piece that usually epitomizes a certain kind of emotional red meat. What we got were lots of powerful individual moments, some of them feeling more planned than organic: fireworks yielding abruptly to quiet calm, moods and tempi changing on a dime. Urbanski was a fine co-conspirator: The interplay with the individual instruments of the orchestra in the second movement was excellent. After the fireworks of the final cadenza, Trifonov left the audience with something pretty and flowing, an excerpt from Nikolai Medtner’s “Forgotten Melodies” called “Alla Reminiscenza,” as an encore.
The second half of the program was given over to another big, sprawling gem of the Russian repertoire, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. It was another commanding performance that also left me feeling a little detached. Urbanski, like Trifonov, tends to a kind of understatement that made the big first movement feel especially long, although the cracking whiplashes of the fast, acerbic second movement got everyone focused. The third movement saw another one of those get-under-your-skin moments when the horns, playing a theme purportedly related to the name of a student with whom Shostakovich was infatuated when he wrote the piece, created a sound so intense that I could almost feel it like a liquid filling up the inside of my head. If he can get players to do that, or bring out the orchestra’s fine cellos (whom he moved to the edge of the stage, as if for emphasis), I am compelled to say that I “liked” him, and the performance, but the takeaway is a lot more complex than that, and you should probably go hear it for yourself.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.