Top Ear

Trifonov: The Carnegie Recital

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Leonard Ip writes  [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]

Trifonov won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, and two years later, on 5th February, 2013, exactly a month before his 22nd birthday, he reached another milestone in his career:  his Carnegie Hall debut.  Trifonov’s artistic achievement is manifest in this all-Romantic recital.  My first encounter with this young pianists’ artistry was from his 2012 Mariinsky CD, and I was astounded by his Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and Schubert-Liszt’s Erlkonig:  like many young Russian pianists, Trifonov has astonishing power and speed, but his enrapturing, diaphanous touch in the high registers and ravishingly linear legato playing is quite exceptional.  The present solo album did not disappoint at all.

Trifonov’s recital included the Scriabin Sonata No. 2 and Liszt Sonata, both of which were coincidentally recorded by another young pianist:  in Yuja Wang’s highly regarded DG debut (Sonatas and Etudes).  I personally enjoy Wang’s recording a lot, and it was particularly entertaining and informative to compare her performance side by side with Trifonov’s.  Trifonov’s timings are shorter in every movement than Wang’s, and on the whole Trifonov is more overtly expressive.  To put it simply, though both pianists’ techniques are exemplary per se, Trifonov’s style is more similar to that of the Romantic virtuoso:  wilder, more searing, less stable and more volatile.  Wang on the other hand is calmer and more rational.  Both the sonatas display the stylistic differences between the two pianists quite obviously:  Trifonov better conveys the intense Scriabinesque fantasy and ecstasy, while Wang’s Liszt sonata is more in line with the mainstream, modern school of interpretation, emphasizing clarity of structure and balance.

Trifonov’s Liszt is a case in point.  You will be left feeling greatly moved after the final chords disintegrate and vaporize into the hall’s atmosphere, not because Trifonov is a deeply probing, unyieldingly rigorous interpreter à la Pollini or Brendel, but because his infecting expressivity and pianistic language is extremely mesmerizing, and he’s willing to inflect and milk a passage or a phrase to magnify its beauty as greatly as possible, like Horowitz.  Such a stylistic bent’s disadvantages obviously lie with the music’s structural integrity, or rather the possible lack of it, but Trifonov’s exquisite delivery of the sheer beauty of the writing has rarely been matched.  An example includes the expressive passage before the final climax (starting at 4:40 on track 5):  the high-register octaves diminished to an almost ppppp level, and the luminous, ethereal tone had me completely mesmerized.  It takes this kind of interpreter to truly capture the listener’s imagination like Liszt himself did–no wonder Anne Midgette, in her concert review in The Washington Post, described Trifonov as “an heir to Liszt”.

If one may find some flaws with Trifonov’s Liszt Sonata, you’d be hard-pressed to pick any problems with his Chopin Preludes.  These musical snippets allow Trifonov to pour out his expressive reserve on the music’s poetry and drama, and the whole cycle has a kind of rhapsodic arch as if conceived in one single breath, inviting the listener to hear the whole cycle in a single sitting.  Trifonov’s spontaneity and imagination coupled with his technical proficiency are the elements contributing to this interpretation’s success.  He intentionally starts the 5th Prelude with a gentle whisper, and accelerates to a torrent of extremely nimble runs, of which completely natural transitions lead one to realize that even masters such as Pogorelich and Argerich sound comparatively mechanical and even boring—only Cortot could achieve a similar level of magnetism through varying the musical shape and phrasing.  Trifonov is no Scrooge when it comes to his use of the pedal, but he controls it extremely accurately, and the 7th, 11th, 13th and 23rd preludes emerge sounding unforgettable, as if gracefully painted with watercolor.  The faster, more impetuous numbers may lack a bit of rhetorical weight, but Trifonov’s exemplary technique is more than enough to compensate for it.

Last year, after hearing that Mariinsky CD, I already thought, “I’m a fan”.  But this solo album went further as to completely win me over, and I hope other listeners will feel the same way.  Trifonov really is an artist to watch.

Details

  • Album name:  Trifonov:  The Carnegie Recital
  • Works included:  Scriabin:  Sonata No. 2;  Liszt:  Sonata;  Chopin:  Preludes;  Medtner:  Skazi Op. 26 No. 1
  • Performers:  Daniil Trifonov (piano)
  • Label:  Deutsche Grammophon 479 1728
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  78:48
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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