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A Star Pianist Brings Soft-Spoken Virtuosity to Scriabin

The 24-year-old Alexander Scriabin had completed his studies at the Moscow Conservatory but never written a work for orchestra when in a rush of enthusiasm in 1896, he composed his Piano Concerto in F sharp minor. (He never wrote another.)

At the time he was besotted with Chopin and stimulated by new currents in Russian music, including the work of his classmate Rachmaninoff. There are only hints in this youthful concerto of the wild-eyed visionary Scriabin would become in later years. Though beguiling, there’s a work-in-progress feel to this 27-minute concerto, which is not often performed.

So, all credit to the young Russian virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov for beginning his artist-in-residence season at the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday with a scintillating account of this Scriabin rarity, with Jaap van Zweden conducting. It’s hard to imagine a more persuasive performance.

With the mellow orchestra in the background, the piano introduced the theme of the first movement, a searching melody that Mr. Trifonov played with lyrical grace and warm, full sound. As the music unfolded, the piano kept breaking into spans of filigreed, Chopinesque passagework. The profusion of runs that rushed up the keyboard and cascaded down could have easily sounded merely decorative.

But Mr. Trifonov revealed the shape and content of these passages, bringing out crucial thematic threads and highlighting sudden harmonic shifts. Even when the piano, for long stretches, seemed to take a supportive role to the orchestra, the piano writing was animated and intricate. Mr. Trifonov played with an uncanny balance of tenderness and flair: Call it soft-spoken virtuosity.

The slow movement, a theme and variations form, began with a solo clarinet playing a melancholic melody against a mellow choir of strings. The piano took up the theme, adding lacy lines in its high register. There was a jostling dance variation, a sternly forceful one that recalled Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, and, finally, a waltzing, dizzying coda. The final movement was a feisty dance, like a Russified Chopin mazurka, with spiraling runs and bursts of chords, played by Mr. Trifonov with fire and élan, though not a trace of showiness for its own sake. The orchestra under Mr. van Zweden sounded inspired.

Mr. Trifonov played a solo encore, a perfect choice: Scriabin’s Étude in C sharp minor (Op. 42, No. 5), a compact, rhapsodic, near-crazed piece from the period when the composer wrote diabolically mystical works.

After intermission Mr. van Zweden turned to Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, written in 1888 when the composer was a towering figure in Russian music, though not without his critics. It’s poignant to read the insecure Tchaikovsky’s own criticism of this symphony, which suffered, he wrote, from his “want of skill in the management of form.” Actually, its form seems innovative and ingenious. That structure came through clearly in the incisive, rich performance Mr. van Zweden drew from the Philharmonic.

Still, his tendency to drive climaxes to the maximum marred the reading. The top-down, controlled quality of the conducting made the performance seem rigid at times. Perhaps this reaction was enhanced by the contrast with the openness and grace of the Scriabin performance, which was a great start to what promises to be a rewarding residency for Mr. Trifonov, who is now a proud New York resident.

New York Philharmonic

This program is repeated through Tuesday at David Geffen Hall; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.

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