Daniil Trifonov’s revelatory piano recital outclasses the more ear-battering offerings at Verbier

Daniil Trifonov
Financial Times

By Michael Church

Tom Wolfe’s critical polemic The Painted Word had a salutary effect when it hit the streets in 1975. Debunking the pretensions of abstract expressionism’s literary champions, it gave the rest of us licence to stop feeling guilty for failing to appreciate the philosophical transcendence of their art form. The book is just as relevant now but it needs a musical counterpart: The Composed Word could make hay with the high-flown verbiage without which no self-respecting piece of “new music” can be let loose.

Commissioned by the Verbier Festival, where it was premiered last week, Charlotte Bray’s Invisible Cities came heralded by a theoretical tract that embodied its own hoped-for review. Associating her work with an essay on Venice by Italo Calvino, this prolific young composer described the convoluted psychological journey on which it would take us, provided we were prepared to “set our imagination free”. Did anybody warn her that this effusion was counter-productive? At all events, she popped up to tell us we “might feel more comfortable” if we regarded her new piece as a sonata in four movements. 

If such candour was refreshing, the music was not. Aggressively atonal, and reeking of the composition class, this “sonata” for viola and piano was dictated by the head rather than the heart, and began with a movement so relentlessly ear-battering that the long, slow bow-strokes of the second came as a physical relief. A saving grace should have lain in the fact that the violist was Lawrence Power – Britain’s answer to Yuri Bashmet – whose sound was a constant delight, but not even he could breathe life into this dense and rebarbative piece.

The rest of the concert was old music delivered by dream teams. Power was joined by pianist Simone Dinnerstein and clarinettist Martin Frost for Mozart’s Trio in E flat, K498, then by violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Mischa Maisky for Mozart’s Divertimento K563. Power and Co. gave it compelling authority.

3 stars

Verbier’s tourist trade may be wilting in the recession, but its music festival is flourishing, with pianists much to the fore. Although Martha Argerich cancelled her performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1, her protégée Khatia Buniatishvili substituted with a subtly nuanced performance. The first week brought whiffs of post-Soviet excellence, with Elisabeth Leonskaya’s limpid Mozart and Nikolai Lugansky’s heroic Liszt, while Valery Gergiev’s pianist-of-choice Denis Matsuev revealed himself as a closet jazzman.

But the most keenly awaited recitals were those by 24-year-old German-Japanese Alice Sara Ott (the “barefoot pianist”) and 21-year-old Russian Daniil Trifonov. Ott opened with an accomplished performance of Schubert’s Sonata in D major, D 850 – yet while she found a convincing path through this labyrinthine work, the second movement lacked the requisite mystery and vulnerability. In Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition she grabbed every opportunity for virtuoso display, but missed the essential point about this kaleidoscopic work, which is that each mood has its balancing opposite. Like many pianists of her age, Ott equates volume with power, and she doesn’t do poetry.

2 stars

Trifonov’s recital was breathtaking. Argerich last year told the FT she had never before heard a touch like his, and all I can do is concur: it’s not just a matter of precision and weighting, it’s a unique amalgam of fastidious tenderness and seemingly unfettered wildness. After two exquisite Debussy Images, he gave an account of Chopin’s complete Etudes that was truly revelatory: his emotional restraint – and frugality with the pedal – made the lyrical ones all the more moving, while his preternatural dexterity lent the finger-twisters a rare grace. For the next three weeks, anyone interested can check out this astonishing recital for free on www.medici.tv.

5 stars