For the second time in as many months, a young, European, piano phenom blew away a Symphony Center audience with a dazzling display of bravado and artistry. Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who just turned 26, gave a stunning recital on Sunday, his second appearance at Symphony Center this season. Coming on the heels of February’s recital by English pianist Jonathan Grosvenor, Trifonov’s brilliant performance demonstrated that superb piano playing has a bright future across the Atlantic. (For a review of Grosvenor’s concert, see https://thirdcoastreview.com/2017/02/20/pianist-benjamin-grosvenor.)
Like Grosvenor, Trifonov has been assembling quite a resume in a very short time. As a 20 year old in 2011, he won the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein piano competitions, and in 2016 he won Gramophone magazine’s artist of the year. Trifonov has performed and recorded music by 19th and 20th century piano powerhouses Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Beethoven, but he also performs 18th century music by Mozart. He also composes. On Sunday, Trifonov offered up music by romantic composer Robert Schumann and modern Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky, all played with intense drama and consummate flair.
The piano music of Schumann filled the first half of the program, starting with a work that is less technically demanding than usual. Kinderszenen, Op. 15, is a set of 13 scenes from childhood. Opening with an easier work allowed Trifonov to glide into the recital, starting with Of Foreign Lands a People, a light and airy snippet at the beginning of the work. Other parts of Kinderszenen explore different situations, moods, and sensations, allowing Trifonov to demonstrate a wide variety of feelings and approach.
The histrionics came out for Schumann’s Toccata in C-major, Op. 7. Piano pieces like this remind me of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where the Austrian Emperor criticizes a work by Mozart for having “too many notes.” A careless use of the pedal and imprecise touch can muddle a work like the Toccata. No problem for Trifonov, who carefully and precisely gave clarity to the melody while displaying intense vigor in the background.
Closing the first half of the concert was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16. This long, 8-section work is interesting for its frequent use of syncopated rhythms between the left and right hand, the harmonic effects of rapid switching between major and minor keys, and the way alternative versions of material from early in the work show up again later. However, parts of this piece can be melodically dull and overly repetitive, making some of the middle sections rather tedious.
Trifonov’s forceful yet nuanced approach extracted all the variety to be found in Kreisleriana. He was extremely effective highlighting the contrasts, especially in the agitated last section, which starts and ends very quietly but has a forceful middle section. That said, even a masterful performance could not completely overcome the work’s inherent shortcomings.
The second half of the program was devoted to composers from Trifonov’s homeland, Russia. First up was Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, a complete performance of which would last over two hours. Trifonov extracted five of the 24 pieces and ordered them in a way to give a unifying performance with sharp intensity but a much shorter duration.
He started with No. 4 in E-minor, a quieter, slow work requiring careful finesse. Trifonov gave it a feeling of suspense that built through the middle of the fugue, which starts out slow, but soon gathers speed. Here, and throughout the other fugues, he paid careful attention to the different lines of melody superimposed against one another. He next jumped to No. 7 in A-major, where Trifonov played up the frolicking melodies in both the prelude and fugue.
While his style was animated throughout, Trifonov saved his heaviest fire for the last piece, both in the opus and his rendition, No. 24 in D-minor. The prelude starts slowly with meditative chords stretching to the bottom of the keyboard. This tempo carries over into the fugue. While Trifonov played it majestically, he imbued it with an expectation that, at the conclusion of such a long work, fireworks were inevitable. When they came, Trifonov got more and more animated. Obviously having a good time banging away at the keyboard, his enthusiasm infected the audience, which jumped to its feet at the work’s conclusion, with some heading for the exits as if the concert had also reached its end.
But it hadn’t. Trifonov rushed back to the piano, while people scurried back to their seats. He jumped into the last piece on the program, Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, which started with same rapid-fire chords that ended the Shostakovich. While the audience might have settled down, Trifonov never did. He pounded through the opening movement with brashness and verve. Even when the second movement started with slower, quieter notes, Trifonov continued the attack, while faithfully reproducing the haunting feel. Much of the final movement has the steady, constant purr of an assembly line, an aural sensation that he maintained with intense adrenaline.
The Stravinsky ended every bit as dramatically as the Shostakovich did, and, as before, the audience erupted with rapturous applause, which carried on for several ovations. Nobody was going home without some encores, and Trifonov complied with Nikolai Medtner’s Alla Reminiscenza from Forgotten Melodies and Sergei Prokofiev’s Gavotte from Cinderella. Even then the audience kept up the applause, with Trifonov returning to the stage several times. People only began to disperse after it was crystal clear that Trifonov was not going to return. (The usual technique of turning up the house lights would not work in the balcony because the lights had never been dimmed after intermission.)
As with Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov is a European piano master worth following. I hope to hear him again soon.