Here's your Prom date: Russia's new piano dynamo

07.27.15
Daniil Trifonov
The London Times

The finest young pianist in the world is playing not one but two concertos in a night at the Albert Hall, he tells Richard Morrison.

Passers-by stare, not at the ghostly-pale face of the young man opposite me, but at his fingers. Delicate and surprisingly small — given his profession — they continually form piano chords on the table as he speaks. It’s as if Daniil Trifonov is simultaneously sustaining two mental states: one fielding questions from The Times, the other processing the music swirling through his brain. Or perhaps it's simply that he would be much happier expressing himself in music (although his English is perfectly fluent).

The 24-year-old Russian is without question the most astounding young pianist of our age - as the Albert Hall audience will discover when he appears at one of the summer's more bizarre Proms tomorrow. Valery Gergiev will conduct all give Prokofiev piano concertos, with Trifonov one of three pianists sharing the solo honours. He plays Nos 1 and 3, his teacher Sergei Babayan plays 2 and 5 and another Russian, Alexei Volodin, tackles the "left hand" concerto, No 4. 

Trifonov doesn't agree that playing all five concertos in one concert is strange. "It has already been done in St Petersburg and when you hear them all together it's almost like a unified piece; a big five-movement concerto," he says, his fingers seeming to run through one of Prokofiev's harmonic thickets as he talks. 

Like many post-Soviet Russian musicians, he prefers to see Prokofiev's music as a personal (not political) statement. "One big source of inspiration for people playing Prokofiev is his two volumes of diaries," he says. "They give a lot of insight into his mental state when he wrote the concertos. For instance, the Second Concerto is dedicated to his best friend and the diaries show Prokofiev's grief when that friend committed suicide."

What of the concertos that Trifonov will play? "The Third is fascinating because it is full of references to Prokofiev's ballet music and vocal music, so there's a hidden story," he says. "The First, by contrast, points to  his Russian heritage. It's a parody of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, but with everything upside down, including the main theme." Trifonov sings, as well as plays on the table, to demonstrate his point. It was that barnstorming Tchaikovsky concerto that turned Trifonov from prodigy to superstar. In 2011 he decided to enter two piano competitions - the Rubinstein in Tel Aviv and the Tchaikovsky in Moscow - in quick succession. "The last event for the Rubinstein was in the morning, then I flew to Moscow and did the first round of the Tchaikovsky that evening," he recalls. 

The contrast could not have been greater. "In Tel Aviv all the contestants were in a hotel by the sea; there was almost a holiday atmosphere. In Moscow, the intensity was terrifying. Especially for me: a Russian who had studied there for eight years. Yes, it played on my nerves." 

Maybe, but Trifonov responded brilliantly. Having won the Rubinstein, he stormed through the Tchaikovsky, taking not only the gold medal but also the audience award and price for best chamber concerto performance. The veteran pianist Martha Argerich - no pushover when judging emerging talent - was blown away. "He has tenderness and also the demonic element," she declared. "I never heard anything like that."

Where did all that come from? Trifonov was born to a composer father and a music-teacher mother in Nizhny Novgoron. Unlike many prodigies he was all of five before showed unusual talent. Oddly the piano didn't trigger it. "My father, for his compositional needs, brought home a Midi keyboard, and for me this was a fascinating technological device," he says.  

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