Russian Tornado Trifonov Touches Down in L.A.'s Disney Hall

By Truman C. Wang

Two powerhouse classical musicians got together and made music on such a grand scale as to make even the lesser works on the program seem like mini-masterpieces or better than they really are.   Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite has been called ‘the poor man’s Rite of Spring’, alluding to that revolutionary ballet by Stravinsky that had premiered in 1912, three years before Prokofiev’s.  The savagely loud and clamorous sections depicting pagan rituals flank the hushed quiet middle section of moonlit night.  Our still-young maestro Gustavo Dudamel, after years of maturing on the job and mellowing out from the hell-bent firebrand that he once was, evidently found his mojo back in Prokofiev’s riotous music, delivering the sonic equivalent of kickboxing in the vast Disney Hall auditorium and on the audience’s eardrums.

Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was a product of his extra-marital affairs and was rejected by the conservative New York society that he had hoped would premiere the work.   Even without regard to the questionable morality of the ‘Ecstasy’ part of the title, the work has all the hallmarks of a self-indulgent hedonist, its sensuous writing for the strings and the brass often recalling that of Richard Strauss’ sex comedy “Der Rosenkavalier”, and the final (very loud with organ pedals) moment of ecstasy might very well have borrowed a page from Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.   It was quite a showstopper for maestro Dudamel and the brilliant L.A. Phil musicians, particularly the principal trumpet Thomas Hooten. 

But the real showstopper on the program needed not shout from the mountaintop.  Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 began quietly, almost in a ruminating, meditative vein by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, while the hushed orchestral accompaniment trailed him closely like a waft of delicate fragrance.  It was a refreshingly cerebral reading of a work that is all too often played with heart on open sleeve, even more surprisingly from someone so young as the 25-year-old ‘tornado from the steppes’.   Perhaps unique among today’s pianists, Trifonov maintained an aristocratic poise and an upright posture even during the hairiest, most thunderous passages – not unlike the keyboard manner of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz.   Throughout the three movements of the concerto, both Dudamel and Trifonov showed great chemistry as though they were long-time collaborators, and gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance that Rachmaninoff himself (and Horowitz) would have approved.  

Instead of a flashy encore, Trifonov chose the quietly contemplative "Fairy Tale" by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner, and infused it with the depth of a Pushkin poem.