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Multiple competition winner Daniil Trifonov exudes joy of music-making in Cleveland recital

Daniil Trifonov
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Donalb Rosenberg

Any pianist who wins an award at a major international competition must be considered a master of perseverance and technical accomplishment. But what about a musician who triumphs at no fewer than three top competitions?

Daniil Trifonov, a Russian pianist who studies with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music, managed that incredible feat during the 2010-11 season. He won third prize at the Chopin competition in Warsaw last fall before taking first prizes at both the Rubinstein competition in Israel and the biggest plum of them all, the Tchaikovsky, in Moscow.

So it was with more than a little interest that an audience listened intently to the 20-year-old Trifonov in recital Wednesday at the institute as part of the Mixon Hall Masters Series. The concert was sold out, and stage seats were filled with young people (CIM students?) dressed in black attire.

Trifonov charmed the crowd by bowing to each corner of the audience after finishing a piece. In many respects, he demonstrated why juries at the various competitions voted enthusiastically in his favor. His playing is virtuosic and sensitive, combining remarkable command of the keyboard with an abiding joy of music-making.

The program Trifonov chose Wednesday didn't paint a comprehensive picture of his artistry. The menu comprised short items that added up to an evening of encores (and there were some of those, too). What was missing was a sonata or other extended work that would have revealed something about his grasp of musical architecture.

But Trifonov certainly made it clear that he can traverse the keyboard at the fleetest tempos without pressure or a hint of sweat. In several of the quickest selections in the complete set of Chopin etudes, Op. 10, he was a master of velocity and textural clarity.

Elsewhere, Trifonov proved that he also savors restraint and poetry. He began the program's opening work, Chopin's Ballade No. 4, Op. 52, at a hush, only gradually increasing tension to emphasize the music's dramatic urgency.

The etudes held moments of lyrical beauty, though Trifonov had a tendency to underplay expressive nuances or obscure harmonies by leaning too generously on the sustain pedal.

Trifonov devoted the second half of the program to works either arranged by Liszt or composed entirely by the man himself. They included four Schubert songs, Schumann's "Widmung" and Paganini's "La Campanella," whose bell-like passages received glistening delineation.

When it came time for real Liszt, Trifonov tore into the Mephisto Valse with rambunctious glee, as if the menacing feats were natural acts of pianism.

For encores, he offered pieces by Mussorgsky and Bach, as well as a lilting account of Chopin's Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18, that sent the audience happily into the night.