Concert review: Pianist Daniil Trifonov’s spectacular Toronto début at Koerner Hall

04.14.13
Daniil Trifonov
Musical Toronto

By John Terauds

Barely into his 20s, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is a superpianist, one of those rare performers for whom no technical hurdle is too difficult, and who can tease captivating music out of the densest jumble of notes.

The effect of seeing and hearing him make his Toronto recital début at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon was stunning.

Could it be that a string of notes could be played so seamlessly? Could the concert grand in the hall really be stroked so delicately? Was it possible that those big chords could be played in such quick succession?

Trifonov arrived with a programme designed to show off virtuosic skills. But he went well beyond what we know and love in standard interpretations to add his own special musicality.

And breathe he did — so audibly that he filled the resonant, sold-out hall with nearly as many sniffing and snuffling sounds as piano notes. Also notable about his way of playing was the trance that he appeared to enter as soon as his hands touched the keyboard, spreading a beatific smile on his face much of the time.

By the end of each half of the programme, Trifonov was drenched in sweat looking very much like one of those boxers who needs to be handed a towel as soon as he walks off the ring.

The sold-out house loved Trifonov’s performance, giving him several standing ovations.

While I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for this exceptional artist, I can’t say that I liked everything I heard.

The opening piece, Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, from the late 1890s, is a jumble of notes that Trifonov skillfully organised into something not only coherent, but beguilingly shimmering. It was the work of a magician, not just a competent pianist.

Then came Franz Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata, a work heard far too often these days.

Trifonov made the loud bits louder and the soft bits softer. Nearly everything loud also became impossibly fast, with the pianist’s fingers becoming lighting bolts shooting up and down the keyboard. The quiet bits were stretched out slow, almost to the point of immobility at times.

Yes, it was dramatic and, yes, it probably helped us feel something of the piano-shredding excitement people must have experienced at a recital by Franz Liszt himself in the mid-19th century. But it was also a gaudy interpretation that turned Liszt’s emotional effusions into something more like obsessions.

The second half of the programme was devoted to the Variations on a Theme of Chopin by Sergei Rachmaninov.

Like Liszt, Rachmaninov was a composer-pianist who knew how to impress his audiences. This 1903 concert piece was a silver-plated vessel for Trifonov to further show off his phenomenal, easy technique and love of cranked up dynamic contrasts.

If there is one thing that particularly impressed me, it was Trifonov’s skill with runs. We know that lines are made up of tiny dots sitting so close together than we don’t notice the spaces in between. Trifonov’s keyboard runs were the equivalent of a seamless line drawn by fingers on the white and black keys, just a smooth progression of uninterrupted tones going up and down.

Even if the overall interpretations pushed the boundaries of good taste, there were enough Wow! moments on Sunday afternoon to make this one of the handful of truly memorable concerts of the season.