Susanna Malkki
Susanna Mälkki leads the LA Phil at Disney Hall | Credit: Elizabeth Asher

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Feb. 25 program feted the return of luminary Susanna Mälkki to the podium after a six-year stint as the ensemble’s principal guest conductor. Paired with Daniil Trifonov’s performance of Brahms’s towering Second Piano Concerto, the program clearly showcased the orchestra’s ability to attract the most visible conductors, composers, soloists, and collaborators.

Sunday’s audience was attracted to the spectacle of Trifonov’s Brahms, which was dependably executed though only occasionally transcendent. But the scale of the work couldn’t help but overshadow the two shorter selections on the program’s first half. The response to the concerto somewhat obscured the most interesting elements of the afternoon — Mälkki’s significant and impressive contributions as a commissioner, interpreter, and ensemble leader.

Her touch, which can appear upright or spare at a passing glance, communicates extreme detail without undue filigree. She led the orchestra through Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, showing little besides the piece’s expansive cut-time beats, but the post-impulse energy of her gestures, alternately rocking, driving, and bouncing, brimmed with intention. The orchestra responded most effectively to this idiom in the piece’s lyrical moments. Sections with more drive and rhythmic bite took longer to settle in.

Mälkki’s precise sensibility served the ensemble well as she led the U.S. premiere of Enno Poppe’s Fett, an LA Phil co-commission whose planned 2021 performance was forestalled by COVID and which graced two of the weekend’s three concerts. The conductor navigated thorny changes in meter effortlessly, as you might expect from a musician who stewarded the famous Ensemble intercontemporain. Meanwhile, the solidity of her impulses ensured that the flexuous piece was not without some hard edges. Under her leadership, the orchestra executed Poppe’s heavily microtonal language with greater confidence than have many exclusively contemporary ensembles.

Susanna Mälkki and the LA Phil at Disney Hall | Credit: Elizabeth Asher

Mälkki’s brief preperformance introduction outlined the physical properties fat can take on in different states. In Fett, Poppe builds textural material slowly and deliberately. The piece’s long opening section, characterized by whimpering interjections from principal string players, eventually gave way to a variety of instrumental arrangements, which evoked Mälkki’s visual footnotes with a sinister air.

Sliding, chromatic back-and-forths in the strings and a roving, brilliantly executed cello section solo evoked the grim viscosity of oil. Thudding interjections from the brass and bubbling motifs in the flutes conjured up the percussive elements of animal butchery. Meanwhile, dense, totemic chords recalled a brutality that pervades the artist Joseph Beuys’s work with beef tallow. Though audience reception to the work was muted, the piece’s graphic ambitions and colorful employment of microtonality were vivid and unhackneyed.

Trifonov’s performance received a much more effusive response — he has a powerfully devoted fan base, which clearly appreciated the opportunity to hear an idol take on a staple of the concerto genre. The rendition satisfied eager concertgoers and featured a few rapturous moments, but Trifonov (collaborating with Mälkki for the first time) produced a delicate sound that, though well unified with the orchestral timbre, was often insufficiently piano-forward.

Though his rendition of the concerto had several well-articulated moments — his playing in the second-movement scherzo, buttressed by cutting, responsive figures in the strings, was deeply satisfying, and his touch at the outset of the finale was dry but graceful — the interpretation tended toward singing, delicate, and contemplative. Some passages dissipated into the hall with too much fragility, especially in the piece’s opening movement.

But Trifonov’s slow-movement duet with principal cellist Robert deMaine, by contrast, drew audible sighs. The duet was just as beautiful when it recurred at the concerto’s end, after which DeMaine and Trifonov reunited onstage for an encore performance of Brahms’s lied “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (My sleep grows ever quieter), which has the same melody as the concerto’s Andante.

That final moment of lyrical beauty shared by Trifonov and deMaine was on many audience members’ lips as they exited the hall. It was a stirring finale to an impressive afternoon of music-making but one which seemed to overshadow many of the most striking moments from the concert’s first half. When Mälkki returns for another program, perhaps it should be her work that receives the primary focus.