Trifonov shows artistry of the first order in Chicago debut

02.10.14
Daniil Trifonov
Chicago Classical Review

By Lawrence A. Johnson

There was more hubbub than usual in the Symphony Center lobby Sunday afternoon for the Chicago debut of Daniil Trifonov. At the age of 20, Trifonov took first prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in 2011, and the Russian pianist’s career has rocketed even more rapidly than most previous high-profile winners.

Chicago pianophiles turned out in force Sunday to hear what all the excitement is about, and Trifonov did not disappoint. The slender pianist—who looks even younger than his 22 years—is the real deal, blessed with an awesome technique coupled with a poetic, finely nuanced expressive palette and impressive artistic maturity.

Stravinsky’s Serenade in A proved a suitable curtain-raiser. Trifonov showed himself fully in synch with this music, bringing an apt rhythmic edge and spiky insistence to Stravinsky’s fragmented lyricism and Neoclassical high spirits.

Yet it was the French music at the center of his recital that brought the finest playing of the afternoon. In two excerpts from Debussy’s Images, Trifonov weaved a spell. Time seemed to stand still in “Reflets dans l’eau,” his spacious, luminous performance an ideal blend of supple strength and tonal refinement. In “Mouevement” Trifonov maintained an essential elegance in a rollicking account with wonderfully even right-hand articulation.

As inspired as the Debussy items were, Trifonov’s Ravel was finer still, displaying artistry of the first order in four selections from Miroirs. He brought a ballad-like narrative quality to “Noctuelles” with a pointillist touch. “Oiseaux tristes” was extraordinary. Trifonov’s delicate half-tones made the piano seem like an instrument without hammers, rendering Ravel’s avian evocation with subtle hues and a hushed evanescent atmosphere.

Likewise he brought out the dramatic undercurrents in “Une barque sur l’ocean,” the climax powerful without sacrificing elegance. The jaunty rendition of “Alborada del gracioso” rounded off the set with great rhythmic verve and Gallic panache.

The pianist changed to a Hamburg Steinway at intermission for Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, which made up the entire second half.

This epic set of 12 variations contains some of the most technically challenging music in the keyboard repertory. Trifonov added three of the five “posthumous etudes” cut by Schumann (Nos. 1, 4 and 5), artfully working them into the larger canvas.

With his outstanding technical arsenal one will rarely hear this complex music tossed off with such polish and security. After a rather deliberate statement of the Andante theme, Trifonov’s fleet tempos, fluent touch and youthful fire brought fine cohesion and a gathering momentum to a work that can sometimes become episodic. He consistently underlined the quirky caprice of Schumann’s writing, and brought drama and focus to the flamboyant Florestan passages.

Yet despite the clear intelligence and near-faultless playing, this music didn’t feel entirely lived in as yet interpretively. The dreamy Eusebius side of Schumann’s dueling alter-egos was less apparent, slow sections played with sensitivity yet rather literal and lacking the kind of inner glow and expressive depth that Trifonov brought to the French music earlier.

The tumultuous ovations brought the young pianist out for four encores. First were two Chopin Preludes: a searching and eloquent rendering of the Prelude in A-flat Major, and a brilliant account of that in B-flat Minor.

Russian music, appropriately, closed the afternoon with a nostalgic account of Medtner’s Fairy Tale in B-flat Minor and the Scherzo from Trifonov’s own Piano Sonata, similarly echt-Rachmaninoff in style, and tossed off with a bluesy swing.