Trifonov Takes A Breather On The Fast Track

Daniil Trifonov is touring with a recital program that examines polyphony from the perspective of non-Baroque composers.
(Dario Acosta)

ON TOUR – A wave of young soloists, including Benjamin Grosvenor, Denis KozhukhinIgor Levit, and Yuja Wang, is taking the piano world by storm. But none have risen faster or gained more critical praise than Daniil Trifonov, a Russian-born 26-year-old who now lives in New York. A huge acknowledgment of his elevated standing came in September when he was named Gramophone magazine’s artist of the year, a high-profile honor that is decided by international public vote.

“What sets Trifonov apart is a pair of attributes that are seldom found in one pianist: monstrous technique and lustrous tone,” wrote New Yorker critic Alex Ross in January. “The characteristic Trifonov effect is a rapid, glistening flurry of notes that hardly seems to involve the mechanical action of hammers and strings. It’s more like the immaterial swirl of veils in the dances of Loie Fuller. Such wizardry makes even Trifonov’s celebrated colleagues stop in wonder.”

Trifonov enjoys sharing the stage occasionally with former teacher Sergei Babayan (left).
(Verbier Festival 2015)

Trifonov has just embarked on a six-city North American recital tour that began in Philadelphia and Chicago and continues through April 4 in Durham, N.C.; Baltimore;  and Washington, D.C. On March 30, he will present a two-piano concert with Sergei Babayan, his former teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, under the auspices of the Sarasota (Fla.) Concert Association. The two first performed together four years ago. “Of course,” Trifonov said, “it’s very nice to play with the person with whom you studied, because there is a certain trust of musical intentions that makes the whole process very spontaneous.”

The pianist will complete his latest set of North American appearances on April 6-9 with performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Trifonov first worked with the orchestra when he recorded Rachmaninov Variations, a Deutsche Grammophon album released in 2015 that included the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Variations on a Theme of Chopin. It made The Guardian’s list of top 10 classical recordings of that year and earned the soloist his second Grammy Award nomination.

“I was very curious to work with the orchestra with which Rachmaninoff himself recorded all of his concerti and symphonies,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in New York after concertizing in Australia, “and, of course, I was very happy with their sound and the way they perform Rachmaninoff, which embodies the terrific intent of his music.”

At the 2011 Tchaikovsky competition, contestant Trifonov
preps with the maestro and his teacher Tatiana Zelikman.

Born in Nizhny Novgorod, young Daniil began piano lessons at age 5 and made his professional debut three years later. He went on to study with Tatiana Zelikman at Moscow’s famous Gnessin School of Music and ultimately completed his education in the United States. Although he had already gained awards in earlier contests, he catapulted to almost instant stardom in 2011 when he won first prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv and then took top honors just weeks later at the even more important International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Soon afterwards, he made his Carnegie Hall debut with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra.

Trifonov acknowledges that he was not ready for the onrush of attention that quickly followed these initial successes. “I would say in the beginning I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” he said. “I knew there would be concerts, but I didn’t realize that it would be something that would dramatically change the way I live, especially the amount of traveling. In the beginning, it was difficult to cope with.”

Daniil Trifonov vows to take more time to compose and to relax. (Dario Acosta)

As part of the transition that has come with quick acclaim, the pianist, who announced his wedding engagement last summer, has begun paring back the number of concerts he gives each year so he can have more time for relaxation and composition. (He introduced his own First Piano Concerto in 2014 at the Cleveland Institute of Music and performed it again in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Symphony.) Last season, Trifonov performed a staggering 120-130 concerts, and he hopes to cut that back to fewer than 80 or 90 a year. Toward that goal, he is taking 1½ months off this summer and has included more substantial breaks in his 2017-18 schedule.

What he does not plan to change is the healthy mix of concertos, chamber music, and solo recitals among his activities. “It would be difficult for me to play one type of concert and one type of repertoire,” Trifonov said. He emphasized his love of chamber music, which not only allows him to interact in an up-close way with other musicians but also gives him access to some of the greatest works ever written.

A new Rachmaninoff CD features Gidon Kremer, Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, Trifonov. (DG)

A recent example of his forays into the chamber music literature is Preghiera, a CD focused on Rachmaninoff’s Trios élégiaques Nos. 1 and 2 that was released in February. (The recording is named for Fritz Kreisler’s piano-violin arrangement of the famous theme from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, included as a bonus.) The release features the pianist alongside the highly regarded Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and Lithuanian cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė. The three have performed together as part of Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica, and they presented the Trio No. 2 in January, 2015 in what Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed called a “a performance of a lifetime.”

Trifonov has been aware of these works since he was a student, and he particularly admires the Trio No. 2, which received its premiere in 1894 with the composer performing the piano part. “It’s a very early work for Rachmaninoff,” the pianist said, “but it already shows his compositional mind. In many ways, this work is closer to his religious works like Vespers and Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Indeed, he noted a recurring motif in the piano part that suggests a church bell.

Carnegie Hall invited Trifonov to curate seven concerts in its 2017-18 Perspectives series.

Another testament to Trifonov’s classical stardom came in January when Carnegie Hall named him and violinist Janine Jansen its “Perspectives” artists for 2017-18, each curating a series of concerts. The title has been held in recent seasons by such notables as soprano Renée Fleming, conductor Simon Rattle, and violinist Christian Tetzlaff. A highlight of Trifonov’s seven concerts is one titled “Decades,” in which he will perform one work from each decade of the 20th century. He said the concert will give him a chance to explore a period that has not been a big part of his repertoire. “Of course, on one hand, it’s important to choose works which were among the most innovative for the time they were being written,” he said, “but at the same time, there are some personal favorites.” Included will be pieces by Alban Berg, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Sergei Prokofiev, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Other offerings will include three concerts devoted to Frédéric Chopin and performances with some of his regular collaborators like the Kremerata Baltica, baritone Matthias Goerne, and cellist Gautier Capuçon.

Trifonov debuted his latest recital program in September, basing part of it around the idea of “polyphony being interpreted from the perspective of non-Baroque composers.” To that end, he selected Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, and about 30 minutes of selections from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. The Schumann was composed in 1838 and its title was inspired by Johannes Kreisler, a character who recurs in several works by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The pianist said the piece borrows extensively from the language of Baroque music, with a bass line that is almost organ-like, but it is written from a Romantic perspective. Similarly, the Preludes and Fugues look back at the Baroque era, he said, but come from a “very different time and place,” and some are “surprisingly lyrical and intimate” for Shostakovich.

The rest of the program provides a contrast to those selections, including two other Schumann works that show alternative sides of the composer – Kinderszenen and Toccata, Op. 7 – and Three Movements from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, which the pianist describes as a “brilliant transcription and a very dramatic score.” The last is a work that the pianist has long wanted to play.

“The juxtaposition of heady Schumann and detached, ironic Shostakovich was inspired,” wrote music critic Rebecca Franks in the Jan. 25 edition of the London Times. “In his selection from the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Trifonov carried a rapt audience from the lilt and sob of No. 4 to the thunderous, towering ending of No. 24 in D minor. Then, fired up, he dazzled us with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, bursting with color, brilliance and life.”

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.