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Review: Daniil Trifonov Presents An ‘Enormously Satisfying’ Perspective At Carnegie

Daniil Trifonov

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, October 30, 2017

At twenty-six, Daniil Trifonov is already one of the world’s most exciting and successful pianists, and this season he became the youngest artist ever invited to create a Carnegie Hall “Perspectives” series. He gave the first of the seven recitals and concerts comprising that series—an illuminating, thoughtfully-configured survey of Chopin’s impact on music from his time to ours—this past Saturday evening on Carnegie’s main stage.

The first half of the program featured an inspired sequence of brief portraits and tributes by Schumann, Grieg, Barber, and Tchaikovsky, bracketed by imposing sets of variations by Mompou and Rachmaninoff. Some of this was familiar, some not so much, but Trifonov played it all with grace, poetry, and the occasional wry flash of wit, revealing depths of thought, feeling, and originality where it might not have been suspected—Grieg’s wild energy and roiling invention, for example, or the darkness, trouble, and hint of acid lurking in Barber’s nocturne. (Most of this music is on Trifonov’s new release from DG, and the rest is here. Mompou plays his variations—a wonderful set, alternately charming and eloquent, well worth spending time with and hearing from many perspectives—here.)

Then came Chopin’s “Funeral March” sonata, and all bets were off. Trifonov, as Alex Ross aptly notes, is one of those musicians who “give a hint of the unearthly, the diabolical. They tend to walk onstage hurriedly and bashfully, with little ceremony, and usher in bedlam from unseen regions.” Trifonov made the sonata’s opening movement more than usually dramatic, with strong contrasts between the principal motives but at the same time powerful, unexpected linkages that brought out the lyrical potential in the agitated first subject and the explosive tendencies of the more lyrical second. The scherzo was spooky and unsettling, with a weirdly lovely trio. Then bedlam.

The funeral march carries no tempo-marking in Chopin’s manuscript, nor in any of the early printed editions—the “Lento” commonly seen today seems to have been attached to it in Scholtz’s edition of 1879, thirty years after Chopin’s death—but in practice, it normally approximates a slow but natural walking-rhythm, lasting about eight minutes on average. Horowitz’s 1962 recording, at 7:45, is representative, with Rachmaninoff (6:11) and Hofmann (10:04) marking the extremes. On Saturday, Trifonov started out much slower than Hofmann and got slower as he went along, probably topping out somewhere between twelve and fifteen minutes—who knows? you got lost in it after a while. I have no idea what he was doing, but it was plainly what he meant, and he took the house with him:  you could have heard a pin drop. After that, the brief, grizzling finale—Chopin described it as “the left hand in unison with the right, gossiping after the march”—was almost like a slap in the face.

Naturally, there was controversy, but that set in even before the Chopin. The house had been sold out more than a week in advance, but there were many empty seats, and at intermission you could hear unfavorable comparisons to Horowitz, and much merriment at the expense of some of Trifonov’s more fluid gestures. It’s hard to think why: few in this audience could have been around in 1929, when Horowitz was twenty-six; and if Trifonov needs to make little wavy motions with his arms and hands to get the effect of surrendering a note lovingly rather than leaving it, then more power to him, and God bless him.

Trifonov’s not perfect—he sometimes has tiny hiccups in extended chromatic runs, and in heated passages he can get so far ahead of himself that the next section seems to arrive before he’s thought what to do with it, as the trio of the Chopin scherzo appeared to have done Saturday night—but his technical endowment includes a magnificent left hand, able to sustain singing melody over enormous spans, with perfect trills, delicately varied and colored, while his grasp of structural and tonal relationships ensures that even the most complex shifting of gears will seem natural, necessary, and truly felt. There were many examples of the latter, most notably in that same scherzo:  once it found its feet, the trio was exquisite, with breathtaking left-hand trills, and every transition through the rest of the movement carried absolute conviction. Trifonov is also remarkably good at making plausible rhetorical connections between movements: he omitted a few numbers from the Rachmaninoff, for example, but the join between variations 17 and 20 seemed just right; and the three final variations in the Mompou, comprising five wildly different moods and modes of address, seemed to grow and subside, naturally and inevitably, as a single rich thought.

It was all enormously satisfying—perhaps, to quote Ross again, not the kind of “sensation” that others may provide, but thoughtful, solid, and authentic. I suspect that few who were there—like it or not—will be able to stop thinking about it for some time to come, and rightly so: he gave us a lot to think about. And he’s only twenty-six.


Pianist Daniil Trifonov in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.




Hommage à Chopin with Daniil Trifonov, piano, at Carnegie Hall on October 28, 2017.

MOMPOU Variations on a Theme of Chopin

SCHUMANN “Chopin” from Carnaval, Op. 9

GRIEG Studie, Op. 73, No. 5, “Hommage à Chopin”

BARBER Nocturne, Op. 33

TCHAIKOVSKY Un poco di Chopin

RACHMANINOFF Variations on a Theme of Chopin

CHOPIN Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35

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Cover: Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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