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Short and Sweet

The Kennedy Center
01/31/2019 -  & February 1, 2, 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) in E-flat Major, Op. 73
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

Daniil Trifonov (piano)
The National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

D. Trifonov (© Jessica Griffin)

This weekend’s NSO program offers a somewhat truncated version of the fairly standard overture-concerto-symphony concert format, with no overture, and Shostakovich’s relatively short Sixth Symphony getting the second half of the program to itself. Of course, the featured concerto is Beethoven’s mighty Emperor, which was given pride of place at the end of the concert when given here in 2015. Nonetheless, on that occasion it was preceded by not one but two whole symphonies, Mozart’s 38th and Martinů’s Sixth. With such precedent, the current program may seem to represent somewhat short measure, but such was the caliber of the performances on offer that I for one left the hall feeling musically well nourished (and reminded that quality trumps quantity).

The greatest draw for this concert was surely for many the NSO debut of the young Russian keyboard virtuoso Daniil Trifonov, whose musical and technical accomplishment is matched by his stage persona, seemingly that of a quintessential tortured Romantic—although between the long hair (not so much evident in the attached photograph) and the ever-restless posture, one is put in mind at once of the arch-romantic Liszt and the anti-romantic Glenn Gould. Yet his Emperor proved to be not a wild and unruly Beethoven, but for the most part a gently yet firmly expressive one, with the occasional well-judged infusion of extra electricity, achieving on the whole a fine balance between poetry and drama. The Finale to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 (Op. 31, No. 3) served as an encore, and here Trifonov really cut loose with a rambunctious reading that nonetheless showed no sacrifice of technical command.

To return to the Emperor, however, I would be remiss not to commend the conducting of Gianandrea Noseda, which reminded me yet again what a boon to Washington, D.C. was his fairly recent appointment as music director. The orchestral part in this work is nearly symphonic in its scope, and here Noseda transcended his very fine Eroica from 2017 to prove himself a brilliant Beethoven conductor, giving the score everything one could ask for, with lyrical sweep and rhythmic backbone going hand-in-hand. His attention to dynamic contrasts—and to detail of phrasing at every volume—also warrants considerable praise. I was particularly struck by how touchingly the slow movement commenced and by the sensitive phrasing that managed to heighten rather than detract from the sheer visceral excitement of the finale. Even if the NSO does not represent the last word in sheer refinement of texture or tone, it was in strong form technically and, more importantly, proved fully responsive to its inspired conductor.

Noseda’s direction also proved an invaluable asset in the Shostakovich Sixth. At once unpretentious and quirky, this is arguably Shostakovich at his most endearing, but the work’s unusual structure—a somewhat lengthy and often tortured slow movement followed by two much briefer movements that are scherzos in all but name—presents, I suppose, its own potential pitfalls. How to balance these movements in such a way that the whole doesn’t seem rather lopsided? Noseda largely averted any sense that the work begins unnervingly in medias res by giving us a quite robust reading of the first movement, yet never heavy-handedly so: at once propulsive and fluid. This was to some extent a function of his excellent ear for phrasing, which also brought a welcome degree of genuine but never exaggerated pathos to music that can at times resemble a horror-film-score. The conductor also managed to sculpt the phrasing of the finale so as to temper its bombast with a welcome bit of tenderness. In sum, I don’t know that I have ever heard a more “humanized” Shostakovich.

Samuel Wigutow



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