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International competition winner Daniil Trifonov shows sensitive side in concert presented by Cleveland International Piano Competition
Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Donald Rosenberg
The Cleveland International Piano Competition is a biennial event, which means it could disappear – like a keyboard Brigadoon – when juries and anxious contestants are nowhere in sight.
But the Cleveland competition remains in the public ear throughout the year by presenting concerts featuring former winners, which is what made Friday’s program, “Musical Encounters,” unusual by half at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts.
Along with Kyu Yeon Kim, last year’s fourth-prize winner, the evening included performances by Daniil Trifonov, who has never entered the Cleveland competition.
Nor will he ever have to: The Russian pianist pulled off the amazing feat in 2011 of winning first prize at both the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions. Oh, and he nabbed third prize at the Chopin competition the year before.
So it was no surprise that much of the anticipation Friday surrounded Trifonov’s appearance, which was scheduled after intermission. He demonstrated many of the reasons that international juries were smitten. He plays with poetry and fire, and his technique is so potent that he’s able to go beyond notes to achieve his expressive goals.
The program was structured to allow each pianist to present solo and concerto credentials. Trifonov began with Liszt transcriptions of beloved pieces by Schubert and Schumann, which he could have turned into a display of virtuoso narcissism.
But Trifonov is too sensitive to go the listen-to-me route. He shaped each work with loving attention to shading and line, even when Liszt’s inclination to devour the keyboard beckoned. Schumann’s “Widmung” was particularly lovely in the way Trifonov acknowledged the music’s roots as an art song.
When he returned to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488, he again declined to show off. Trifonov played the outer movements with nuanced grace, reveling in the music’s high spirits, especially the finale’s sprightly activity, while also bringing tender definition to the transcendent slow movement.
Trifonov had an advantage on this occasion that most pianists never experience: The conductor was Sergei Babayan, his teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a triumphant veteran of competition wars. Babayan led the so-called Competition Orchestra, an ensemble of excellent freelancers, in a collaboration that honored Mozart and joined seamlessly with Trifonov’s artistry.
To open the concert’s first half, Kim brought bright, modern-piano sonorities to Rameau’s Novelle Suites de Pieces de Clavecin. She had a tendency to favor the pedal, which obscured some rhythms and textures, but she played with vibrant and polished assurance.
For her Mozart concerto, the South Korean pianist chose No. 9, K. 271, known as “Jeunehomme.” Kim won the Mozart Prize at last year’s Cleveland competition, and here she demonstrated her affinity for the composer.
The performance was a bit unvaried in inflection, yet Kim captured the buoyant spirits and poignancy that make the work a prime example of Mozart’s early concerto prowess. Babayan and the orchestra were sophisticated partners, with the winds taking special honors.