Young Russians Ace Etudes Of Liszt And Rachmaninoff

Russian international prize-winners: pianists Daniil Trifonov, Vadym Kholodenko and Boris Giltburg.
(Photo detail from DG, harmonia mundi and Naxos album covers.)


LISZT: Études d’exécution transcendante S.139. Two Concert Etudes, S.145. Three Concert Etudes, S. 144. Grandes Études de Paganini S. 141.  Daniil Trifonov, piano DG 479 5529 (2 CDs). Total Time: 117:28.

LISZT: Transcendental Etudes, S. 139. STRAVINSKY: Three movements from Petrouchka. Vadym Kholodenko, piano. harmonia mundi 907605. Total Time: 75:00.

RACHMANINOV: Études-tableaux, Op. 39. Moments musicaux, Op. 16. Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos 8.573469. Total Time: 70:38.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — Indubitably, there are many first-class young Russian pianists, but here we focus on recordings by three of the best who deserve special attention. All three have won prizes at leading international competitions, and 25-year-old Daniil Trifonov, the youngest of the three, has already been singled out as a superstar.

Born in 1991 in Novgorod, Trifonov studied with Tatiana Zelikman at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow and went on from there for further studies with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. In 2011, he won both the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky International Piano Competitions. Two years later, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Vadym Kholodenko, another major competition winner, took the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013 and since has made a number of recordings for harmonia mundi. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he studied with Vera Gornostaeva in Moscow. Sadly, Kholodenko and his family were overtaken by terrible tragedy early in 2016, when his wife, Sofia, was charged with the murder of their two daughters, Nika, 5, and Michela, 1, at their home in Benbrook, Texas.

Born in Moscow in 1984, Boris Giltburg grew up in Tel Aviv. His principal teacher was Arie Vardi. Placing second to Trifonov at the Rubinstein Competition in 2011, he went on to win first prize at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition in 2013. Giltburg, who has recorded for EMI and Orchid, now has a long-term contract with Naxos.

Kholodenko’s performance of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes at the 2013 Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth was recorded live by harmonia mundi. Trifonov’s performance of the same work was recorded in a Berlin studio in September 2015. Liszt composed this set of twelve études in 1851. For Trifonov, these pieces should probably not be called études at all. “In the language of Liszt’s time, they were called études because they are technically so extreme, but they are actually technically challenging poems,” he states in the liner notes. In fact, some of them have titles — “Mazeppa” or “Harmonies du soir” — belying a purely technical intention. Whether one calls them études or “poems,” they are indeed extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to play for all but the greatest pianists; it is not surprising, then, that few venture to program the entire set live in concert.

Kholodenko’s technical gifts are on grand display in this recording. To pull off a performance so nearly note-perfect under competition pressure is a remarkable feat. (Here’s a  competition clip of his “Mazeppa.”) That said, Trifonov’s DG studio recording is even better and has the advantage of a perfectly regulated Steinway and a recording quality that has to be heard to be believed.

Both Kholodenko and Trifonov tear into the first two études with astonishing bravura. But then comes the slow-moving and mostly much quieter “Paysage.” Here, Kholodenko is merely competent, while Trifonov takes us deeper inside the music with a much slower tempo. And here the quality of his instrument and the prowess of the DG engineers really comes into play. The clarity and richness of tone in the lower register is palpable. The slow tempo allows us to appreciate every chord change and marvel at the composer’s command of color. Again, in another slow étude, No. 6 in g minor (“Vision”), Trifonov reveals all the mystery and sadness of this funeral march in the opening bars, then builds to an overwhelming climax. In étude No. 10 in f minor (“Allegro agitato molto”), Trifonov is stunning, but Kholodenko’s “agitato” is even more headlong and exciting. For sheer digital dexterity in this piece, Evgeny Kissin is perhaps the most impressive of all (Sony 5033827).

While the twelve Transcendental Etudes can easily be accommodated on one CD, DG and Trifonov have given us a second CD devoted to the rest of Liszt’s études, some of his most famous among them. The last of the Three Concert Etudes, S. 144, “Un sospiro,” may be the most renowned. Trifonov gives us a beautifully conceived interpretation, at once elegant and joyous. This piece has probably been played more often than any single Liszt piano work; for comparison, I went back to a piano roll recording made in 1924 by one of Liszt’s own students, Frederic Lamond (Pierian CD 0039). While Lamond gives us the familiar, rippling melodious salon piece, Trifonov offers something more understated, with surprisingly thoughtful, perfectly placed chords in the final bars.

The Paganini Etudes, based on themes from Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin, are supreme works of genius. This is Liszt at the top of his game, meeting the challenge of Paganini’s virtuosity for the violin with even more difficult and spectacular works for the piano, while at the same time demonstrating compositional mastery that rivals Bach and Beethoven in its command of counterpoint and thematic development. Trifonov’s virtuosity is incredible, but one never gets the impression that he is showing off. Once again, he puts himself at the service of the composer — and what a composer!

Giltburg’s Rachmaninov album gives us more études. In this case, they are titled Études-tableaux. As in the case of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, these pieces are, in Giltburg’s words, “short stories…movies…tone paintings,” rather than pianistic exercises. To be sure, while they add to our appreciation of what can be done on a keyboard, they are always about something more than technique. Rachmaninov himself wrote that Op. 39, No. 6 was “inspired by images of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” Indeed, there is plenty of growling going on in this piece and, as Giltburg understands it, “real psychological horror.”

Giltburg has not only given us superb performances on this CD; he has also written some excellent notes. Mood and atmosphere are important in this music, and Giltburg rightly points out that Op. 39 “mostly occupies the darker, sadder regions of the emotional spectrum.” Clearly, he not only can meet any technical challenge, but also has an actor’s sense of drama.

The six pieces contained in Moments musicaux, Op. 16, while less ambitious, often suggest similar moods and stories. The static melancholy of Op. 39, No. 2 has its counterpart in Op. 16, No. 5. The fourth piece of Op. 16, with its frighteningly relentless chromaticism in the left hand, would fit perfectly into Op. 39.

Giltburg plays brilliantly on this new Naxos CD and, like Trifonov, is blessed with an exceptionally fine instrument and exemplary recording quality.

For the record, on the back of the CD, Naxos has reversed the dates for these two pieces. The Études-tableaux, Op. 39, were composed in 1916-17 not 1896, and the Moments musicaux, Op. 16, date from 1896, not 1916-17.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, and, as well as for his own site,