Review: A Star Pianist Finally Lets Us See Him Sweat

05.06.18
Daniil Trifonov
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

Audiences are not used to seeing the pianist Daniil Trifonov sweat. Whatever intensity he brings to daunting pieces by Rachmaninoff or Liszt, he never appears pushed to his limits. Everything seems to come so easily.

That changed on Friday, when Mr. Trifonov performed the seventh and final program of his ambitious Perspectives series for Carnegie Hall, a recital called “Decades.” The idea was to survey the 20th century by playing something from each decade — not short stopover pieces, but arduous, seminal works. He wanted, he said in an interview on Saturday, to dramatically show the “evolution of piano writing,” which was “so rapid in the 20th century.”

Mr. Trifonov, also a composer, does play his own works, full of Romantic fervor and Scriabin-like colorings. But Daniil doing Stockhausen? Despite (and perhaps because of) its implausibility, the recital was a triumph. That it was clearly a herculean effort requiring tremendous mental focus and physical stamina — you could sometimes hear him breathing heavily — made it all the more impressive. I have seldom heard an artist put so much effort into a single concert.

The audience in Zankel Hall was asked to refrain from applauding between pieces, which allowed Mr. Trifonov to create a spell, a continuous flow of shifting musical experiments. Of course, it also meant that he could not take a little breather after even the most exhausting works. He began with Berg’s single-movement sonata, completed in 1908, which blends the last embers of late Wagnerian style with bursts of early-20th-century expressionist angst. Mr. Trifonov brought striking clarity to the wandering lyrical lines that thread through the music and savored the pungent sonorities of dense, chromatic chords.

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