Young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov conquers Twin Cities

Daniil Trifonov
Minnesota Public Radio

By Michael Barone

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wow! Daniil Trifonov's Twin Cities debut on Sunday for the Chopin Society proved him a compelling advocate for the grand romantic repertoire, and a virtuoso of the highest order. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, as Trifonov has taken Gold Medals at both the Rubinstein (Israel) and Tchaikovsky (Moscow) Competitions and has been a consistently astonishing and delightful talent applauded by audiences here and abroad in the course of the last few seasons. 

Trifonov is a slender fellow, about 5' 10", not yet 22 (born March 5, 1991), looking somewhat like a young Franz Liszt — more boyish, but with similar flaxen hair down over his ears. It could be said he plays like Liszt, too, based on the rapt attention of the audience in the newly revamped concert hall at Macalester's Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center; had had us eating out of his prodigiously skilled hands. The place was packed, with an overflow of at least 50 people seated in chairs onstage, and from the magical, gauzy beginning to Alexander Scriabin's Second Sonata, Trifonov had and held our attention.

His program, though hardly unusual, provided a wonderful and revelatory summary of the highly dramatic romantic keyboard era... occurring in reverse sequence. First, from 1897, the Scriabin Sonata-Fantasy, a two-movement score with intimations of impressionism that opens, according to the composer, with representation of "a quiet southern night on the seashore," but closes in torrents of sound equated by the composer with "the vast ocean in stormy agitation." Trifonov has the uncanny ability to make rapid streams of notes sound like a continuous, fluid sweep; you are less aware of a quick sequence of keys being depressed by agile fingers than of a glistening shower or, perhaps more to the point here, huge waves crashing on a craggy shoreline.

From where I sat, the piano's sound was dark, not unlike the aura of the room itself, but perhaps a bit swollen and sullen. As this was my first time in the auditorium since its renovation, I wondered whether this was caused by the acoustics, the new Steinway, or Trifonov?

All was revealed in the next work, Franz Liszt's B-minor Sonata from 1854, where every possible shading and color was evident, and what had been cloudy before became crystal clear. As Trifonov hunched over the keyboard, Liszt's masterwork seemed revealed as something brand new. It is a cunning evolution of the multi-movement classical sonata format into a continuously transformed structure where themes shape-shift from grim outbursts into lyric sighs, the drama all the while rigorously staged and directed. I've listened to this piece, one of my favorites, many times, live and on record, but Trifonov's immersion in the Lisztian ethos was so complete, and the smile on his face during much of the performance, even during horrendously difficult passages, so authentic that he seemed to say, "What fun this is, what a supreme joy we are sharing!" And share we did.

Faustian turmoil, devilish demands, whatever program you want to apply, Trifonov drove Liszt's treacherous course with the bravery and skill of a World Rally Champion, bringing us repeatedly to the perilous edge and then feinting at last minute, swinging back on course and charging forward. Even he was caught up in the breathless excitement and, in the pause after the huge climax before the quietly transfixing denouemont, took an audible gasp of air. One audience member overheard at intermission confessed that she did not need ever again to hear that piece, feeling that no other performance could surpass what she had just experienced. I'd suggest that even Trifonov would play it differently on another occasion, and who would not want to be present then?!

After intermission came the entire set of Chopin's Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 24, published in 1839, a veritable dictionary of the vocabulary of the emerging "romantic piano." Though the Raindrop (No. 15) often is played alone, the cycle behaves as a unit, providing the performer with a myriad of technical challenges and the listener with a kaleidoscope of emotional states, from frenzy to felicity, agitation to absolute bliss. Trifonov's delicate, feather-light touch, contrasted with the profound power of his climaxes and his fluent use of the sostenuto pedal all were presented with the assurance of a young master completely in his "zone," totally involved with his instrument.

As the last Prelude's three final thunderous subterranean Ds exploded from the depths of the Steinway, we were on our feet in ardent, enthusiastic applause, and rewarded with four encores: a Medtner Fairy-Tale (gossamer filigree), Liszt's arrangement of the Schumann song Widmung (passionate lyricism), Rachmaninoff's arrangement of the Gavotte from Bach's Solo Violin Partita No. 3 (such clarity of the newly-added inner voices!) and Guido Agosti's transcription of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky's Firebird (the piano became an orchestra!). We might have wished that Trifonov continue indefinitely (he seemed willing), but for the need for the Chopin Society's Mary Sigmond to whisk him off to make a tight flight connection to New York City where he plays his solo debut at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. Thanks for bringing him to us first, Mary!

Martha Argerich, herself no slouch at the keyboard, is quoted in London's Financial Times: "Last night I listened to him again on YouTube — he has everything and more. What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It's also his touch — he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that." Nor had we.