Review: A Russian Pianist Who Doesn’t Play It Safe (Even With Chopin)

10.29.17
Daniil Trifonov
New York Times

Through its coveted Perspectives program, Carnegie Hall invites outstanding artists to plan a season-long series of concerts. Most designees think big and go adventurous. At first glance it might seem that the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is playing it safe with his Perspectives series this season. Three of his seven programs are focused on Chopin, including the sold-out recital he played on Saturday to kick off the series, titled “Hommage à Chopin.”
 
Actually, Mr. Trifonov’s series looks wide-ranging and unusually rich, the Chopin concerts included. At 26, he has already proven not just one of the most spectacularly virtuosic pianists of the day but an uncommonly thoughtful artist. Saturday’s recital was fascinating.
 
To show Chopin’s enormous influence, Mr. Trifonov played two sets of variations on Chopin themes by, respectively, the Catalan composer Federico Mompou and Rachmaninoff. There were shorter pieces in tribute to Chopin by Samuel Barber, Edvard Grieg, Schumann and Tchaikovsky (which can be heard on Mr. Trifonov’s new two-disc “Chopin Evocations” recording). After intermission, he played Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, just that powerful work, with its well-known “Funeral March” movement — a superb performance, by turns demonic and wistful, terrifying and tender.
 
And consider where Mr. Trifonov is going with his Perspectives series. In April he plays two Chopin programs with the Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, each dominated by one of Chopin’s two concertos, but in unusual arrangements for piano and chamber ensemble. (He had been acclaimed for his performances of the concertos.) These programs include Chopin pieces you rarely hear: the Cello Sonata; and Variations for Piano and Orchestra on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” an overlooked work that first brought the young Chopin to attention.
 
Mr. Trifonov has also planned a song recital with the compelling baritone Matthias Goerne; a two-piano recital with Mr. Trifonov’s teacher Sergei Babayan; and, to end in May, a recital titled “Decades,” with works by 10 composers, one from each decade of the 20th century — a great idea.
 
To return to Saturday’s concert, Mr. Trifonov began with a captivating account of fascinating novelty: Mompou’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin (the short, graceful Prelude in A, a piece every young piano student plays). Mompou is mostly thought of as a miniaturist who wrote lightly Impressionist pieces with echoes of his native region of Catalonia. But this is an elaborate 25-minute work completed in 1957. Mompou fashions Chopin’s theme into variations of dramatically contrasting moods and styles: some thick with watery, Debussy-inspired runs, or harmonies that pierce Chopin’s theme with stinging dissonances. There’s a spiraling waltz variation; an unruly impromptu; and a final dance and epilogue that turns ominous, like some wild étude by that Chopin-lover Scriabin.  
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