By George Loomis
ANN ARBOR — Daniil Trifonov has been no stranger to concert halls in the United States since his triumphant dual victories in the Artur Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions in 2011. On Oct. 25 in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan, the pianist began his latest sweep through the country, a seven-concert affair that, in addition to the Chopin-themed solo program presented here, will include appearances with the Detroit Symphony and the Mariinsky Orchestra.
Superlatives come easy when people speak of Trifonov, with some willing to proclaim flat out that the 26-year-old sensation is today’s greatest pianist. Martha Argerich has enthused over “his touch — he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.” In preliminary remarks in Ann Arbor, Matthew VanBesien, the new president of University Musical Society here, hailed him in language that, coming from a presenter, sounded downright indiscreet.
Still, nothing one heard this time proved the yeasayers wrong. The program included not just works by Chopin, which made up the second half, but also works inspired by him, including two substantial sets of variations, each on a well-known prelude by the composer. Several of the compositions can be heard on Trifonov’s new Deutsche Grammophon set, Chopin Evocations.
In Variations on a Theme of Chopin by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou, the theme is the charming little A major prelude. One could question whether Mompou’s 1955 piece was really worthy of Trifonov’s artistry. Several fine moments have a noticeably French orientation, but some variations, especially those in which the theme remains clearly recognizable, seem uninspired. For me the work was good to hear because of what it revealed about Trifonov’s artistic wizardry. Although the variations are largely child’s play for one with Trifonov’s prodigious technique, he endowed them with an expressivity that made you think he believed in every note. Consequently, he made a believer of you, too.
The point of departure for Rachmaninoff’s similarly named piece, Op. 22, is the chordal C minor prelude. The theme is treated in a thoroughly professional way, perhaps overly so, as familiar principles of variation dutifully came and went. Still, reasons for the work’s obscurity are not easy to identify, and it proved well worth hearing. It also finally provided an occasion for a full-throttle display of Trifonov’s monstrous technique as well as pointing up the sonorous beauty of his tone at full voice.
In between the variation sets came a group of short pieces, including “Chopin” from Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, beguilingly spun out by Trifonov; a piece from Grieg’s Moods, Op. 73, that had the turbulence of a Chopin scherzo; a probing nocturne by Samuel Barber, Op. 33; and “Un poco di Chopin” from Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72, a captivating gem in mazurka rhythm.
After intermission came a work everybody knows of, but few have actually heard: Chopin’s own Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, Op. 2, which received one of the most famous music reviews of all time, by Schumann: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” One could be surprised that the high-minded Schumann responded so favorably, given the work’s frank audience appeal and technical gymnastics for their own sake. The latter Trifonov predictably thrived on. The work does, however, begin unusually with a fantasy-like introduction before the statement of the theme, which found Trifonov in arrestingly discursive mood. At the end comes a big restatement of the theme “Alla Polacca,” i.e., in polonaise rhythm, and a dazzling coda that goes just about everywhere. I loved it.
Rarely has a program included unfamiliar music by so many great composers. But it had its downside, too, because it comprised, in essence, a vast series of miniatures. Captivating though they were, you also wanted to experience Trifonov’s artistry functioning on a larger structural level. Arguably, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, could provide that opportunity, but structure is hardly the long suit of the composer’s sonatas and concertos. (In New York, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Davis, California, audiences will have a chance to hear Trifonov in his own piano concerto, a flashy work in the Rachmaninoff vein, with harmonic hints of Scriabin and touches of Prokofiev-like melody, all in an updated context.)
Still, the sonata offered considerable rewards. The pianist’s demonic side noted by Argerich charged the restlessness of the opening movement’s first theme and the insistence of the repeated notes in the Scherzo. Most revelatory was the familiar Funeral March, in which the March and its reprise were mirror images of each other dynamically. The first time, it began quietly, as if from a distance, and in a steady crescendo grew to fortissimo. The return was the opposite, starting big and dwindling to practically nothing. The lyrical theme in between — pianissimo, unhurried, eloquent, songful, beautifully shaped — not for the first time found Trifonov at his most entrancing. It happened again in the familiar midsection of the Fantasy-Impromptu, Op. 66, the second of two encores (the first was Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of the Largo from the Cello Sonata), and could become addictive.
George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.