Review: A Virtuoso Pianist Is a Virtuoso Composer, Too

In the beguiling second movement, a kind of intermezzo, a wistful clarinet plays over swaying strings. The piano enshrouds the melody with milky passagework, as the harmonic language, increasingly unmoored, nods to Scriabin. Prokofiev, in his percussive, sarcastic mode, permeates the finale, which hurtles along like a madcap dance. During one waltzing interlude, a devilish solo violin seems to provoke the jittery piano, which unleashes a hellbent cadenza full of fiendish runs, keyboard-sweeping glissandos and full-hand cluster chords.

Even Mr. Trifonov, who can play most anything written for the piano, seemed tested by the stupefying challenges of his own work. Throwing his whole body behind fortissimo chords, he almost rose up, like a Russian Little Richard. At the end, before bowing to the audience, he exhaled deeply. You could see him mouthing “whew.”

This was the second program in Mr. Trifonov’s fascinating Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall this season. Mr. Gergiev opened the evening with a vibrant account of Strauss’s “Don Juan” and, after intermission, led a commanding performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, one of the composer’s most modernist and elusive works. As an encore, he led a splendid performance of the poignant Berceuse and triumphant finale from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

The orchestra’s program on Tuesday night, another long one, began with a sassy account of Shostakovich’s impish Ninth Symphony and ended with Scriabin’s ecstatic, mystical “The Divine Poem” (Symphony No. 3). Another Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev, was the soloist in Prokofiev’s formidably difficult Second Piano Concerto.

Once again, Mr. Matsuev proved an exasperating pianist. He brought pyrotechnic virtuosity to his performance. Yet when the music heated up, the tall, broad-shouldered Mr. Matsuev played with overbearing power and brutally harsh sound. For his second encore, he played the fastest, loudest, crassest performance I’ve ever heard of the perpetual-motion finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata.

In contrast, on Wednesday Mr. Trifonov played Prokofiev’s short Sarcasm No. 3 as an encore, a performance with plenty of bite, but also lightness and sparkle. That he loves Prokofiev came through clearly in his playing, as it did, of course, during his own impassioned concerto.

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