Trifonov’s artistry provides a historic piano night at Carnegie Hall
The combination of a Russian pianist, the music of Robert Schumann, and Carnegie Hall has produced historic moments in the 20th century record of classical music performances.
Now in the 21st century, we have a new entry, Daniil Trifonov’s recital on Wednesday night, a profoundly musical and expressive experience of music by Schumann, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.
With almost a decade’s concertizing experience already behind him at age 25, Trifonov’s career is still young enough that he is in the process of discovering the piano repertory and what he can do with it. And with the range and depth of his talent already, one can only guess at the possibilities to come.
His playing and nationality make him a peer of Horowitz and Richter but his musical manner marks him as a descendent of Wilhelm Kempff. Kempff was a poetic player—as is the younger musician—in the particular way of illuminating some intimate corner of a score. Like the best of Kempff, Trifonov’s playing has an internal glow.
This comes through via his extraordinary technique. It is rare to hear Schumann played with both passion and clarity. The former tends to swamp the latter in terms of rhythm and the articulation of middle-range voices. But this is just what Trifonov did in the Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana, with a burning Op. 7 Toccata in between.
His grace and clarity combined for a ravishing effect. Every note was bright, whether the dynamic was high or low, the attack hard or soft. Trifonov also produced exceptional, unexaggerated, legato phrasing, a smooth arc connecting from first note to last while each individual attack was as transparent as an ice cube.
Trifonov has the exceedingly rare ability to produce several different colors from what is, by design, a monochromatic instrument. He can also produce as much explosive fire and power as anyone on the contemporary classical piano scene. All these elements complement each other, none takes precedence, and each serves to channel an expression that is honest. There is not a Trifonov “interpretation” so much as a close, intimate partnership with the composer, and the myriad ideas in the music.
The lovely opening of Kinderszenen, “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen,” was a case in point. Trifonov played it with a child’s naïve warmth and lyricism, somehow discarding all the emotional and intellectual complications of adult life. More than a pianist, Trifonov was an actor. Each shifting mood in the piece sounded spontaneous and exactly right, and though Trifonov’s variations in tempo were wider than most, there was never the hint of mannerism. The penultimate “Kind im Einschlummern” ached with tenderness.
His performance of Kreisleriana was incredible. In key stretches of “Sehr lebhaft,” and the closing “Schnell und spielend,” he played the opposing left and right hand parts not only with drastically different dynamics, but completely different phrasing, simultaneous parts played with a level of interpretive independence in each hand that seemed impossible.
To say this was a revelatory way to hear Schumann is an understatement. It seemed more like hearing Schumann himself, or rather the Florestan and Eusebius sides, playing in duet, even wrestling with control of the overall musical personality.
The sense of anticipation was then piqued for the second half, which opened with five of Shostakovich’s Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues. This music has as much poetry as Schumann, but it is the poetry of form and structure—it wasn’t safe for Shostakovich to indulge in personal rhetorical gestures, so his meanings come through via counterpoint and misdirection.
The only complaint was that we only heard five of the pieces, numbers 4, 7, 2, 5, and 24. Trifonov’s honesty made much of this almost unbearably powerful. Shostakovich’s formal constructions were a way for him to contain thoughts and feelings that were socially and politically dangerous. Trifonov laid these out piece by piece, as if each note was a brick set in a musical edifice that, once built, gave a clear outline and meaning to the things that Shostakovich could not say aloud.
Trifonov’s rhythmic control was a vital part. The slow Prelude No. 4 unfolded with an absolute, though never mechanical, regularity of quarter note to quarter note. This produced the uncanny feeling of a grim task meant to produce the extraordinary music of the Fugue. The Prelude and Fugue No. 2 were unusually fast but as smooth and even as No. 4. Trifonov’s selections descended in fifths. He worked his way down through the playful D major of No. 5 to the gravitas of the concluding D minor of No. 24 with a fascinating understatement, an emphasis on the technical brilliance of Shostakovich’s fugal writing rather than on biographical narrative. The music sounded complex yet free of rhetoric.
To finish, he powered through Three Movements from Petrouchka. Trifonov showed unsurpassed physical and mental agility. Not even Yuja Wang produces such force at the keyboard. Reduced for piano, the original music becomes incredibly demanding: there are simultaneous, competing rhythms and phrases, and wild swings between expressive and thematic ideas. Trifonov used these to thrill, charm, and seduce, especially in his stunning playing of the “Dance russe” and the quiet pathos of the “Chez Pétrouchka.”
While this is a pianistic showpiece, it comes from a powerfully dramatic score, and Trifonov’s focus was always on what was inside the notes.
The same went for the two encores, excerpts from two of Medtner’s Fairy Tales. Op. 26, No. 3, was as soulful and songful as a lullaby, and the virtuosic “Campanella,” Op. 20, No. 2, had a romanticism held aloft by a swaggering left hand.
Pianist Seong-Jin Cho plays music of Berg, Schubert, and Chopin 8 p.m. February 22 at Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org