Tchaikovsky Competition Winners, Barbican, London

At first sight this programme of Tchaikovsky warhorses looked unappetising, but the opening concert of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 season was as much about the performers as the music. The LSO’s principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, is also chairman of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia, and knows talent when he sees (or hears) it. The 2011 prize-winners he invited to London proved to be exceptional artists, over and above their allure as young musicians. Each had something to say, and said it with a disarming mixture of maturity and candour.

The only one with a reputation preceding him was 20-year-old Daniil Trifonov, who has had acclaimed keyboardists as uncompromising as Martha Argerich singing his praises. Trifonov’s Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto more than matched expectations. He gave the opening salvo a spring in the step that immediately banished the “warhorse” tag, before uncovering a multitude of voices in the first movement cadenza, some of them unexpectedly dark. There was no hint of playing for effect. Trifonov is more than capable of the bewitching virtuosity this concerto invites, as his finale amply demonstrated, but he is too much a force of nature to play to the gallery. While his performance had enough lightness and playfulness to banish the bombast, it also harnessed firepower and temperament. The sooner we hear Trifonov in Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, the better.

Narek Hakhnazaryan, a 23-year-old cellist, was scarcely less impressive in the Rococo Variations, nicely harmonised with his orchestral partners. Neither awkward nor overawed by the occasion, he played with a freedom and innocence – and an endearingly sweet tone – that made the music sing. The real singing came in the form of Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, delivered by 27-year-old Sunyoung Seo with the confidence and sparkle of a seasoned professional. Her rich-toned lyric soprano is already a substantial instrument, wielded with technical security and an open heart: she sang in impeccable Russian and clearly knew what the words meant. Three individuals, three outstanding talents – but the most important quality in each case was sincerity. Gergiev’s faith was well justified.

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