Daniil Trifonov

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Published: 16th March, 2017

There was a palpable mix of both anticipation and rare excitement in the packed foyer of the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday night as pianophiles came together with piano students of all ages, as well as the elite of the Melbourne piano world. They had all come to hear arguably the finest young musicians on the world stage at the moment, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov.

Russian-trained, but now American-based, Trifonov captured the musical world’s attention when in a period of less than 6 months he won First Prize in two of the world’s major international piano competitions – the Rubinstein in Tel Aviv, followed soon thereafter by the Tchaikovsky Grand Prize in Moscow. The year prior, he’d also secured Third Prize in the Warsaw Chopin Competition, where many would have placed him higher still. To win one such competition might be considered serendipitous, and not necessarily indicative of an assured career trajectory. But successes in three such major competitions before the age of 21 is a sign of a formidable talent.

Now 26 years old, Trifonov has already forged a career performing in all the major concert halls with the cream of the world’s symphony orchestras and conductors, with no sign of waning interest in an artist who continues to deliver, both in recital and on CD. Oh, and did I mention, he composes as well! It was something of a coup for the MRC to secure Trifonov to launch their 2017 Great Performers Series, and he did not disappoint.

The recital began with a first half dedicated to the works of Robert Schumann, and himself once an aspiring virtuoso, who – fortunately for musical posterity – had a promising performing career curtailed by injury, thus allowing him to dedicate himself entirely to composition. Not surprisingly Schumann’s first 23 Opuses are for solo piano and it is from this group of works from the 1830s that Trifonov selected three vastly contrasting works, Kinderszenen, the Toccata, and Kreisleriana.

Conceived as reminiscences of childhood, rather than as teaching pieces for children, and before the composer married his muse Clara Wieck, (later having 8 children together!), Kinderszenen contains some of the most exquisite pages of Schumann. Often deceptively easy, they require a performer who can imbue the collection of 13 miniatures with a simplicity and directness of approach that capture the optimistic essence of childhood, pensive here, rambunctious there, inquisitive or simply nodding off to sleep elsewhere.

The Toccata by contrast was perhaps the most overtly finger-busting piano piece conceived to date (1833), with its relentless double-note twistings and turnings that are unforgiving to all but the most assured techniques.

Kreisleriana in many respects embodies so much that the Romantic movement represents – it is a work that wears its literary associations on its sleeve, being inspired by E.T.A Hoffman’s fictional literary creation, Johannes Kreisler, whose seemingly schizophrenic character vacillates between untamed tempestuousness and quiet reflection. A series of eight Fantasias – dedicated to Chopin no less – it presents many challenges to the performer who can too easily struggle to make a cohesive whole of the disparate musical narrative.

After interval our musical journey took us to Russia.

In 1950 Dmitri Shostakovich, inspired after having attended a festival in Leipzig commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, set about composing his own personal homage to the German master contrapuntist, a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for keyboard, as Bach had twice done before him in 1722 and 1744. Shostakovich, whose key sequence diverges from Bach’s original, seems to have established a trend amongst his Russian compatriots, with composers such as Shchedrin, Slonimsky and Kapustin all following suit. (Even popular children’s composer Dmitri Kabalevsky composed a set of Preludes and Fugues, though he stopped at 6). Trifonov selected five Preludes and Fugues – the cycle of 24 is rarely heard in its entirety – aptly finishing with the vast monumentality of the D minor Fugue that concludes this magnum opus of twentieth century piano.

Then came Petrushka. Best known as one of a triptych of Stravinsky’s revolutionary pre-WW1 ballets, Petrushka actually began life as a Konzerstück for piano and orchestra and not surprisingly the piano features prominently in the orchestral ballet score. Perhaps no less surprising, a decade later Stravinsky decided to write Three Movements from Petrushka (1921) for Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein, the composer always insisting however, that this was not a mere arrangement or transcription but a piano work in its own right. Petrushka is a pianistic tour de force, requiring an acrobatic dexterity complemented by an ability to differentiate between a myriad of contrasting and competing lines and textures. Often violent, it is unforgiving in its requirement of finely etched musical detail and performing stamina. A none-too-easy challenge at the end of an already generously-substantial and varied program.

What however of Trifonov?

In short this was one of the most transcendental performances heard in Melbourne for a long time, and none who were there will forget it easily. An assured, or more to the point, sublime technical assurance was complemented by a musical engagement that had the listener wholly bound to every note, each prepared and delivered as though Trifonov’s life depended on it. It is rare to witness the musical commitment that unfolded on the Elisabeth Murdoch stage tonight and it clearly left the performer enervated by night’s end. There were no weak moments in the program and one wonders how Trifonov can sustain such white heat intensity with such a rigorous touring schedule.

Personal highlights were the opening Kinderszenen, where Trifonov’s tonal palette contained at least five different varieties of pianissimo each one carrying through the vast expanse of this wonderful auditorium effortlessly and  beguilingly cantabile. As for the Toccata – too often offered up with unrelenting thunder and bluster – has it ever been more musically rendered and with such nuanced detail? This was a Toccata of contrasts, of varied hues, and not merely a vehicle for virtuosic display. The concentration that then sustained Kreisleriana was imposing. For such a large and contrasting structure, it was as tautly cohesive as you could wish for. One wondered how it could be maintained post-interval?

Yet Trifonov made as persuasive a case for Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues as you are likely to hear, with the added spice of highly individual, yet no less convincing, approaches in aspects of some. But what is a concert if one doesn’t hear something new, something unusual that sheds perhaps a new light on familiar works? Then came the pianistic tour de force that is Petrushka – this was a performance that left the audience no less enervated than the performer.  Not only did Trifonov become Petrushka, he seemingly was Nijinsky inhabiting Petrushka. A performer possessed, transcendent, giving more of himself than we by rights deserved.

This was no ordinary concert. Despite the near-unanimous standing ovation, I suspect it shall be a long time before Daniil Trifonov returns to Melbourne in recital – so I urge those of you who can – secure a ticket to one of his three performances with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra later this week playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 1 (Friday, Saturday, Monday nights at Hamer Hall). Better still, go to all three. You won’t regret it.