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Review: Daniil Trifonov at the Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga

Daniil Trifonov
San Francisco Examiner

By Elijah Ho

Daniil Trifonov is a name that we will hear again many times in the future. He will become one of the main pianists for the younger generation…” – Dang Thai Son, Jury member and winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. 

By way of Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, Daniil Trifonov, the 20-year-old artist out of Russia, answered the question as to why the tradition of pianism must continue. At the opulent Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, the latest winner of the International Tchaikovsky competition delivered a compelling musical performance, and one of the most convincing in recent memory.

Trifonov’s artistry appears unaffected by his growing fame. His conceptions are remarkably planned and there is a healthy breathing to his sense of phrasing. Like the Tchaikovsky winners before him, Trifonov's mechanism is nearly infallible, and one of the most immediate impressions is undoubtedly his all-encompassing piano technique. Once the notable distraction of his world-class technique is dismissed, however, an artist of rarest gifts is revealed.

Saturday’s recital was Trifonov’s first public performance of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, No. 21 D.960. In the first movement of the work, the pianist chose a rather slow tempo (perhaps reminiscent of Sviatoslav Richter's account), but the development was introduced with such remarkable singing in the chords that one’s spirits were immediately lifted. The pianist was faithful to the score, and the languorous depths of the Andante sostenuto highlighted the pianist’s remarkable ability to sustain a work. The delivery was also notable for the pianist’s technical and dynamic control; one could feel the fingers merely grazing the notes, producing the faintest ringing tone. There was not a hint of vulgarity to be found in the final Allegro movement, where pianists often play with a certain hint of giddiness. With a steady rhythmic pulse, Trifonov maintained the structure of the celebrated work, and there was a profundity to the performance - a sense of development and balance that prevented one’s attention from wavering.

With Trifonov, every note appears to have been refined, and nothing is given to the shallowest sensitivities of his audience. On stage, Trifonov appears lost in the music, always smiling. He plays with an infectious love of the music. Perhaps what is most compelling, however, is his interpretative ability. One gets the impression that the ability to interpret a score beautifully comes most naturally for him; Trifonov’s attention to detail is stunning. And these qualities were perhaps most aptly displayed in Book I of Debussy’s Images. The first of the set, Reflets dans l’eau, showed the pianist to be a fine and most natural colorist. Trifonov’s sense of timing evoked images of Impressionism and the feeling of submergence.

After the Debussy, Trifonov delivered a clinic, performing in succession the Opus 10 Etudes of Chopin. Here are the notables: No. 1 in C Major: Trifonov played the transcendental work convincingly. The carefully marked rhythms and chosen accentuations brought a freshness to the piece. The fluidity and utter suppleness of his wrist were also fascinating to observe. No. 2 in A minor: One of the most difficult puzzles in the etude repertoire, Trifonov played this through at a rather average tempo. The performance was spine-tingling, however, notable for its use of pedal at times and accentuations of the thumb and index finger in the right-hand. It was one of the more poetic performances of the chromatic etude that this listener has heard. No. 3 in E major: One of the most adored melodies ever composed for the piano, Trifonov delivered a rhythmically-faithful reading of the piece. Here, Trifonov revealed a world of freedom within the score, and delivered a personal poetry. The return to the theme was played with a marked difference from the opening. No. 12 in C minor: Arguably one of the most powerful live performances of the etude that this listener has ever listened to, it was the last piece on the program. Here, Trifonov appeared to have finally unleashed the virtuosic side of his artistry. There was a ferocity in the figurations of the left-hand, and the artist took us through the turbulent, the chaotic, and the image-invoking passages of the masterpiece.

Trifonov gave three encores – the last, a rarely played Sergei Rachmaninoff transcription of J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 (Gavotte en rondeau). Coupled with the pianist’s musical gifts, it was the kind of elegance reminiscent of a previous age - harmonies and singing that went straight to the heart.

In an intimate setting, Trifonov’s sound is splendidly layered and is often heard between the dynamic markings of pp and mf. Trifonov is not one to bang at the instrument – in fact, his sound sings quietly in a most refined fashion. One marvels at the differentiation, the control and the colors that this artist brings to the concert stage. This was not edge-of-your-seat playing, but rather, a beautiful reminder of the value and power of Art by legitimate means. Trifonov’s conceptions were never entirely predictable, and one felt them to be resounding and truthful. The pianist delivers by authentic means, and there is a sense of artistry and thoughtfulness that never wavers. Rarely does a performer come along who brings forth the most powerful comprehensive qualities of each composer they are playing. Daniil Trifonov has this ability; he is a generational talent.