Pure music

The New Jersey Symphony presents Daniil Trifonov Performs Brahms

3 minute read
NJ Symphony performance: Trifonov in the fore at the grand piano, Zhang at the podium, arms uplifted & the orchestra around
Daniil Trifonov plays Brahms with the New Jersey Symphony and music director Xian Zhang. (Photo by Grace Liu Anderson.)

Symphonies often take center stage in orchestral programming, but the concerto was king at New Jersey Symphony’s first concert of 2023. Star soloist Daniil Trifonov joined music director Xian Zhang for a performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major that alternated lyricism with brawn, ably demonstrating the full range of the composer’s sound world.

Running nearly an hour in length, the titanic concerto occupied the entire first half of the afternoon. Zhang’s thrillingly immediate interpretation, in which Trifonov was a totally copacetic partner, honored Brahms’s commitment to pure music while keeping the listener engaged as the composition hurtled forward. Conductor and instrumentalist favored nuance where others reach only for might.

Finesse, contrast, and poise

Trifonov finessed the opening lines of the Allegro non troppo, matching the elegance of the French horn call played by Chris Komer. The mellow start gave the impression that a pliant performance was to be expected. Yet soon enough, Trifonov muscled his way into the first movement’s cadenzas with a hefty, darkly polished sound, as opaque as his earlier touch had been transparent. It was a sturdy study in contrast.

The soloist worked to maintain that balance throughout, with Zhang matching his musical ideas on the podium. The Allegro appassionato was witty without turning glib. In the famous Andante, Trifonov’s silky playing caressed the rich cello solo, given gorgeous voice by section principal Jonathan Spitz. The rollicking finale sometimes sputtered and sometimes crashed, but it always enthralled. Even in the piece’s prolific tutti sections, Zhang always found a way to highlight individual voices within the orchestra.

After a well-deserved hand from the audience at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Trifonov shared his encore with Spitz. The pair played the Largo movement from Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor with a refreshing sense of poise, not overdoing the work’s Romantic lushness.

A Strauss finish

You could almost call it a day after such a powerful expression, but the musicians returned, sans soloist, for a second half dominated by Richard Strauss. The composer’s Don Juan is always a fun assignment for an orchestra thanks to its piquantly detailed scoring for multiple instruments throughout the course of the piece. The tone poem reimagines the famous title character not as a lecherous lothario but as a figure of love’s ideal promise, and the writing is thus both heroic and lyrical.

Zhang managed the former with no issue, coaxing a bold, burly sound, especially from the brass section. Robert Ingliss played the oboe’s solo passages with refinement that suited the work’s nature. Yet I would have liked a greater sense of spin and suspension in the strings to contrast the hard-driving style elsewhere. Perhaps they were suffering from a Brahms hangover?

Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier offers a perfect encapsulation of Viennese fin de siècle culture and a skillful parody of it. The waltzes that permeate the piece should sound unimpeachably frothy and still be shot through with a sense of tension—a nod to the impending First World War that was on the horizon as Strauss composed. Zhang’s liberal use of rubato and insistent fortes crushed the subtlety of the composition. Still, the beauty and brilliance of Strauss’s greatest opera shone through.

What, When, Where

Daniil Trifonov Performs Brahms. Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83. R. Strauss, Don Juan, Op. 20, and Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59. New Jersey Symphony. Daniil Trifonov, piano. Xian Zhang, conductor. January 8, 2023, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, 100 South Street, Morristown, New Jersey. (800) 255-3476 or


Covid-19 safety protocols vary by venue. Mayo Performing Arts Center does not require masking during performances.

All New Jersey Symphony venues have wheelchair-accessible seating and accessible parking available on a first-come, first-served basis. For specific information about accessibility or to purchase accessible tickets, patrons can call (800) 255-3476 or email [email protected].

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