Review: Daniil Trifonov

Feb. 7, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

In one of the most eagerly anticipated evenings on this season’s schedule of classical concerts in Richmond, Daniil Trifonov, the 27-year-old Russian piano virtuoso, delivered scorching, dynamic and at times haunting performances of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev.

Trifonov’s technical facility and temperament have sparked comparisons with legendary keyboard figures of past generations, and after hearing his work in this concert it’s hard to gainsay the gusher of superlatives that preceded his appearance here. He showed, however, that some musical seasoning will be needed before he achieves full command of repertory that requires depth and interpretive discretion to balance (or outweigh) speed, brilliance and high-romantic expressiveness.

What he plays superbly and what he could play more convincingly was starkly evident in his performances of Beethoven’s “Hunt” Sonata in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3, and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8.

Trifonov pounced on the many accents of the Beethoven, at times threatening to turn its big opening movement into a succession of exclamatory outbursts, and played its scherzo and presto finale at breathless paces. At more relaxed tempos, and in a reading of Beethoven’s “Andante favori” in F major, WoO 57, that preceded the sonata, he engaged in some remarkably subtle phrasing – dynamics within dynamics – enhancing the music’s lyricism and giving it an almost impressionistic quality.

This episodic, not to say schizophrenic, treatment of Beethoven contrasted sharply with a masterfully conceived, compellingly narrative reading of the Prokofiev, the last of the composer’s three “wartime” sonatas (No. 8 dates from 1944), which rank at or near the pinnacle of 20th-century solo-piano music.

Trifonov realized the richly atmospheric, yet sonically austere, character of the first movement of the Prokofiev, and made convincing emotional counterpoint of its turbulent passages. His treatments of the sonata’s waltz-like central movement and epic finale – alternate takes on the danse macabre – finely balanced pointed rhythm and lyrical flow.

Between the two sonatas, Trifonov summoned his seemingly inexhaustible store of virtuosity for Schumann’s “Bunte Blätter” (“Motley Leaves”), Op. 99, an infrequently performed sampler of short pieces that the composer had written over several decades, and the “Presto passionato,” the original finale of his Sonata in G minor, Op. 22 (discarded on the advice of the composer’s wife, Clara).

The pianist’s high-romantic chops, demonstrated in his recordings of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, were on vivid display in the Schumann pieces. Really good performances of this composer’s solo-piano music should sound almost like improvisations, inspirations of the moment. Trifonov played with that kind of spontaneity and impetuosity.

Rewarded by a near-capacity crowd with a roaring ovation after the Prokofiev, Trifonov played a piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, as an encore.

* * *

UPDATE: Trifonov’s performance of the same program, minus the Schumann “Presto passionato” and with encores by Prokofiev and Chopin, on Feb. 9 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, can be seen and heard here (registration required):

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