After hearing pianist Daniil Trifonov in this recital performance, I would say no one on the celebrity circuit has a more impressive technique.
By Susan Miron
Expectations ran unusually high for the Boston Celebrity Series‘ appearance (on March 13) of pianist Daniil Trifonov. (The Celebrity Series had brought him to town in 2012, so he was hardly an unknown here.) This lanky pianist with long fingers and long straight hair (which often falls into his eyes) became an overnight sensation in 2011 after he won first prize in two of the world’s biggest piano competitions – the Rubinstein in Tel Aviv and Moscow’s ultra-prestigeous Tchaikovsky – at the age of 20. (He also took third prize in Warsaw’s Chopin Competition the same year). A huge career immediately ensued. In an interview, the very great pianist Martha Argerich blessed Trifonov and critics have found the young pianist (who recently turned 24) nothing short of astonishing. After hearing him in this recital performance, I would say no one on the celebrity circuit has a more impressive technique.
There’s a spate of fabulous pianists with sublime techniques at the moment, and that wealth would seem to be the result of the emphasis on competitions. This polished pianist – also a composer – has the goods in spades. He is an intelligent, thoughtful young man who has a lot to say and says it eloquently and often spectacularly. In an interview in Israel (on YouTube), he says he learned the twelve Chopin Études that he played at the Rubinstein Competition in 2 weeks. There are serious smarts behind his playing, and he has a beautiful touch. This is not a pianist you want to compete against, ever. He may well have one of the surest, most impressive techniques since his compatriot Evgeny Kissin (another amazing Russian prodigy who was, nevertheless, able to avoid the competition route) came on the scene decades ago.
Trifonov’s sold-out recital of Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt in Jordan Hall was consistently impressive, by any measure. He opened his program with an extraordinary rarity (on the concert stage) — J.S. Bach’s “Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542,” transcribed from organ by one of history’s most virtuosic pianists, Franz Liszt. What a brilliant way to show off your stuff, both musically and intellectually! As Steven Ledbetter points out in his excellent program notes, “The Fantasy is a thunderous tour de force of dissonance and unstable harmony, as advanced as anything to come for perhaps a century and a half… It is one of the most dynamically driven and rhetorically explosive works of the entire era.” Originally written for organ, Bach’s music inspired composers such as Liszt and Busoni to work out ingenious arrangements for piano two hands. This was an inspired concert-opener, and Trifonov played it extremely well.
Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor, is made up of two movements and is rarely performed. Trifonov played the first movement with excitement, fury, spookiness, suspense, and power. (He has posted his Carnegie Hall performance of this sonata on YouTube. It is also available on CD).
The second movement, heavenly and mystical, is a huge set of variations on a rather simple theme. It begins very slowly but magically transforms itself into music of transcendent beauty. I had memories of a number of 20th century pianists playing this sonata popping in and out of my mind. It is one of my favorite pieces and I enjoyed Trifonov’s performance enormously.
The website, The Omniscient Mussel, describes the second movement of this piece well.
With what seems like no effort at all, the contentedness of the opening theme is built up into a wild euphoria by the third variation. Complex subdivisions of metre in the first two variations slowly increase the excitement until all of the sudden it seems as if Beethoven has discovered jazz. The dotted rhythms of the third variation have resulted in it being nicknamed the boogie-woogie variation.
Things calm down a little in the fourth variation with the theme remaining relatively intact accompanied by a murmuring left hand. For the fifth variation, Beethoven chooses to present the original opening theme with the variation occurring in the accompaniment. Trills indicate the beginning of the final variation, which moves the theme to the upper register. A G major pedal is heard throughout in the form of a constant trill. The mood becomes more otherworldly and reflective as the trill is moved to the upper register and the piece ends quietly and contentedly, without fanfare.
Franz Liszt was the 19th century rock star of the piano as well as a prolific composer. In his notes, Ledbetter writes that, after Beethoven, violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini was the most influential composer of the era, his compositions reflecting his almost unimaginable dexterity as a performer. Like other composers, Liszt was inspired to create similarly dazzling technical effects on his own instrument after hearing Paganini. Early in his career, Liszt converted Paganini’s horrendously difficult études into versions for solo piano (as he had done with the Bach organ piece which opened this program). Rarely are all twelve Liszt “Transcendental Études” performed in their entirety. One or two pop up on recital programs, but even veteran concert-goes will recall having heard all 12 only once in their lifetimes. Monstrously challenging technically, they are actually simplified (!) from the version Liszt published in 1838. Trifonov played these difficult pieces stunningly, marrying dazzling finesse to powerful musicianship — it certainly sustained this listener’s attention for over an hour.
The audience was duly wowed and, after much applause, Trifonov played a quiet encore, Medtner’s “Forgotten Melody #8.” This is definitely a pianist who creates performances that will be remembered.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.