Dueling Visions of Beethoven: Trifonov and Ohlsson Perform the “Emperor” Concerto


I love the way other musicians can inspire me by making the same piece come alive in vastly different ways. This happened last weekend, when I heard Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5 performed for the second time in a few months. The first performance was by a brilliant young star, and the second by an older master.

In January, I heard Daniil Trifonov, a young Russian widely regarded as one of the most talented young pianists today, perform with the National Symphony Orchestra. Daniil took risks, using a pointed, metallic sound for clear phrasing instead of the warmer, rounder sound performers typically use with music of that period. Beethoven’s music requires a delicate balance of strength and rhythmic intensity without driving it off the edge by making it sound unhinged, and Trifonov generated excitement by bringing it to the brink without ever falling off. The audience could feel that he was transported by the music. His vast range of color, particularly his softest, most intimate pianos in the second movement, were somehow extremely light and dreamlike but projected clearly to the back of the hall. The performance left me exhilarated and I wondered if I could enjoy this piece this much again. 

I did. American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, with the Shippensburg Symphony Orchestra, gave a performance with a different type of energy: subtle, stoic, and noble. It was exactly the type of interpretation I expected and hoped for from the older master. He was in no rush, enjoying the beauty of this music with an understated brilliance and a rich tone that was colored by the most expressive left hand I’ve ever heard with this piece. His left hand brought out voices that I didn’t know were in the music despite having heard it dozens of times. 

Pianists have preconceived ideas of how Beethoven’s music should sound based on a long performance tradition and few dare to push the envelope. However, hearing these great pianists perform the same piece in such different ways enforces my philosophy that as long as there is a clear vision and conviction of interpretation, Beethoven’s music can continue to evolve and take on a new life.

I love that through music, two widely different interpretations can bring a piece to life.