Trifonov brings fresh illumination to Chopin in Carnegie recital

Sun Oct 29, 2017 at 12:56 pm
Daniil Trifonov performed a recital Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Daniil Trifonov performed a recital Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Take a piece that classical pianists have been playing for nearly two hundred years, in this case Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. How many hundreds of fine musicians have played it and how many genuinely individual performances have there been?

Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Daniil Trifonov played the Chopin Second Sonata, and music by other composers that used material from Chopin for variations. This “Hommage à Chopin”–taken from his new Deutsche Grammophon CD, “Chopin Evocations”–was the opening event for Trifonov’s Perspectives Series at Carnegie this season.

Though still young, Trifonov is one of the great contemporary classical pianists. His technique is beautiful in and of itself, both fluid and powerful in the extreme. Beyond that he is special in an old-fashioned way, searching for meaning in the music and expressing it poetically.

His phrasing is singular and unique. Trifonov thinks about how he connects the first note to the last, and how he shapes those notes through dynamics and rhythmic placement, and what they mean. The fact that not all of the recital was up to expectations set the pianist’s strengths in brilliant relief.

What tripped him up was the deceptively modest music of Frederic Mompou. The composer’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin, begins with the plain statement of the famous Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7. Trifonov played this lento e pesante, the tempo and phrasing exceedingly mannered—and far different than on the new recording. The musician who divines meaning was relying on pathos, and it sounded uncomfortably out of character.

Harry Haskell’s program note perceptively described the composer as “Like Chopin…essentially a miniaturist.” But the former worked with oils, the latter with watercolors. Chopin used limited bits of time and tried to mold and stretch them in every way possible. Mompou used the same, and with simple material, space, and elegance decorated it without altering the dimensions.

Playing Mompou like Chopin made no sense. The Variations could not support the weight Trifonov was placing on them. Major seventh chords flashed some charm in passing, and the “Evocation”—perhaps because of its glances at Brahm’s Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2—expressed the music’s deceptive, diffident depths, but the playing had one concerned about what remained.

After resetting backstage, he returned with an extended set of simpatico music from Schumann, Grieg, Samuel Barber, and Rachmaninoff. This was what one had come to the hall expecting to hear.

“Chopin” from Carnaval was the kind of music-making only Trifonov can do; it seemed carved out of flowing water, the space between the notes so perfectly balanced between contemplation and sustained melody that it was achingly beautiful.

Segueing directly through the playlist, the pianist made an extended, complex revery out of Grieg’s Op. 73, No. 5 “Hommage à Chopin,” Nocturne, Op. 33, by Samuel Barber, and Tchaikovsky’s “Un poco di Chopin,” Op. 72, No. 15. Even with the broad contrast between harmonically complex lyricism of Barber and extroverted energy of Tchaikovsky, these made a frame of Chopin’s aesthetics and influence.

Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22, were less consistently successful. Built on another Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20 in C minor, the variations built on counterpoint had a fascinating quizzical quality. But when the tempos slowed and the piece turned back to Chopin’s original, lapidary chords, Trifonov’s playing again became excessively weighty and obvious.

After that long–and at times long-feeling–first half, the only work after intermission was Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Chopin’s piano music is of course at the pinnacle of the literature, but there is a difference in quality between the miniatures and the large scale works like the Sonatas and Piano Concertos. The issue again is time—at longer durations, Chopin seems uncharacteristically constrained by accepted formal and structural limitations.

Trifonov demolished any qualitative and aesthetic difference between the Sonata and, say, the Op. 28 Preludes. This began with the agitated first theme of Movement I, which he played with an unusual off-center phrasing that was clearly purposeful and intentional.

That creative oddness combined with the simplicity of his approach to the secondary theme and turned the first movement into a lesson in sonata-allegro form, with Chopin as the master. With the deep contrasts in his playing, the return of the original theme pushed the feeling of a musical, emotional, and intellectual voyage and return to a deep place. The Scherzo was intense, with a force that came from quick-thinking and even quicker attacks.

The funeral march was remarkable. Chopin’s steady tempo and rhythm in the movement go against type, and Trifonov, himself going against type, played this with exact tempo and rhythm, each chord spaced identically against every other. Slightly on the slow side, this combined the physical feeling of a march with an absolute solemnity of phrasing. Against this, the Lento theme, still exact, was almost unbelievably delicate, measured out with the care of the Fates.

At the end, the Finale-Presto was a bravura display of what can come from his hands—exhilarating for the velocity and emotionally rewarding from the musical meaning.

And still there was just a bit more Chopin; the single encore was a spare, quiet arrangement of the Largo from the G minor Cello Sonata, Op. 65, which made a spellbinding and ravishing end to the evening.

Daniil Trifonov plays his own Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, 7 p.m. November 14.

One Response to “Trifonov brings fresh illumination to Chopin in Carnegie recital”

  1. Posted Nov 01, 2017 at 6:33 am by Marcia M. Loo

    I am immensely grateful with Daniil Trifonov. His extraordinary originality comes from either, he chooses the type of music that is deeply meaningful, or he “smells” the potential of the specific musical work for him to develop his creativity. I am inclined for the latter. And then, he has the talent, or rather talents, intellectual, philosophical, emotional and pianisticos of course, to play what becomes his own productions. When listening to Daniil,s rendiciones, not only are there sounds, melodies, harmonies, etc but colors, textures, volumes, shades, and overall an overwhellming happiness. Ay least, that’s what I feel.

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