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New Russians: On the Cult of Trifonov and Discovering Kozhukhin

Daniil Trifonov
London Room with a View

"Here he comes - like a five year old boy!" was the jovial cry of the patron on my right, banging his hands together in frenzy. He had just spied Daniil Trifonov emerging onstage from our lavish second row seats.

Those around him smiled and chuckled in shared understanding at the good gentleman's exclamation, a mark of the initiated. Trifonov's somewhat gauche stage mannerisms are now well-known and, inexplicably, part of his immense charisma.

A mainstay of the international piano circuit since his resounding triumph at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky  Competition, Trifonov, aged only twenty-four, is a formidable force, as well as a walking paradox. His rise has been astronomical, garnering the kind of critical adulation and popular acclaim that is rarely seen in this age of musicians. Just over a year ago, in the September of last year,  I attended a solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall, lured by a 'platform seat' that would place me within five feet of performer. The programme informed me that the pianist was 'supreme young Russian, Daniil Trifonov', accompanied by a shot of an awkward looking boy and a list of competition accolades. Ah - another Russian virtuoso, I mused, unexpectant. I sat back and awaited the drama, the stoic confidence and - forgive me - the Bolshoi. 

Instead, I was humbled. There is something that immediately piques the attention about Trifonov; from his unchangingly awkward scurrying jog onstage, he defies categorisation. Seemingly so painfully aware of the crowd when bowing, he suddenly seems to forget us all upon connecting with the stool and transforms into music itself. Argerich famously described his playing as 'demonic', and I must insist that there is no term more fitting. On that evening, I sat transfixed as he brushed aside Rachmaninov's Chopin variations with fascinating depth and proceeded to unravel Liszt's devilish Transcendental Etudes with such purity of tone, rapture and deference that I was quite changed. That recital, performed to a half empty hall, remains the the finest concert I have ever attended.

Trifonov retains the pride and haughtiness of the modern Russian school, but marries it with humility. In his every touch is a conversation, a searching deference to the composer. He seeks guidance, he ponders the phrasing of every fleeting passage so deeply that he nearly always unearths, from deep within, something so wondrously imaginative it astounds. Such was the case, most clearly, with Rachmaninov's second concerto. Taken at a tempo a breath slower than most, Trifonov was unafraid to strike chords stridently, with a commandingly percussive ring, but also retreated and ebbed to a somewhat internal voice, convincingly poetic. The first movement rendered him unusually sombre, sat back straight, stripping back the layers of rolling melodies for a naturalistic and striking portrayal, commanding in its respect. The beast reared its fearsomely fascinating head as he hunched, channelling lewdly through the shoulders in the manner of the similarly wilful Gould, and he snatched at the strident chords with perverse glee, lifting his entire body off the stool. It was magnificent. It was Rachmaninov before his association with motion picture. It was grand, it was effacing, it was destined, all in one harrowingly ecstatic sob. Bravo indeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing to note of Trifonov's two concerts is that, once the last note has been triumphantly dispatched, he reverts immediately to that endearingly gauche young boy with the pale and pinched face. Yet, it is not the same. His audience have been touched; their eyes, both spring and wizened, hold a drop of the supreme rapture that is only now beginning to diffuse from him countenance. They are perplexed, but much gladder for it, even if their newfound icon seems to start from the piano bench, surprised by sudden reappearance of such frenzied crowds. He had not exhibited his world; we had trespassed in. 

The cult of Trifonov, I wager, is very real. What is truly extraordinary is that the artist at its heart constantly forgets that we are here.

That evening, the close of a very long day, saw the quiet and unassuming Denis Kozhukhin descend upon a dreary looking Westminster as the second item on this year's International Piano series. A name known to me only very distantly, I arrived chiefly to hear Liszt's crystalline Bénédiction and instead, uncovered glory.

I knew not what I expected from the cherubic blond pianist, but it was not a superior reading of Haydn. I have rarely heard Haydn more attractively presented, with the exact balance of gravity and light precociousness that found a comfortable home in the B minor sonata. There is the ardency of a student that surrounds Kozhukhin still, a sense of study and constant strive for betterment. But it is flattering on him; it casts a sincere filter over his fleet and crisp music, the nimbleness of his touch allowing an array of sympathetic nuance.

A whole other piece could be written on Kozhukhin's Liszt. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is perhaps the composor's most enlightened creation; dulcet, lingering and possessing a subdued introspection that escapes so many Liszt compositions. Kozhukhin's delivery was a myriad of compulsions, attracted not to overarching rapture, but the luxuriant contrast of sweeping ravishment, to the pensive and self-chastising. Underlying it was a supreme sense of calm surety; while not taken as stately slow as Arrau's famous reading, there was no haste marring the lyrical cry of the piu sostenuto quasi preludio, just as the subdued decline into the nothing was a resolute hum  that lingered in the chest, long after the evening had passed. In Kozhukhin, we found a pianist of most marvellous judgement and impeccable capability who, if things transpire as they ought, has great capacity to become a London favourite, for he is already one of mine. 

Read the rest of the review here