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Recital Review

Trifonov serves up a Chicago season highlight with mature artistry, thrilling bravura

March 29, 2017
Daniil Trifonov performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall.

Daniil Trifonov performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall.

Most people in Chicago these days would pay money to hear Daniil Trifonov play Czerny etudes. And his recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center richly demonstrated why that is–and how in just a few years the Russian keyboard phenom has taken the musical world by storm.

In a generous program that spanned 2-1/2 hours Trifonov’s remarkable–often stunning—playing had one walking out of the hall on to Michigan Avenue slightly dazed. No pianist currently before the public combines this kind of staggering power and faultless technique with the mature intelligence and musical insight displayed by the slender young Russian on Sunday. At 26 years of age, Trifonov is already the complete package.

The first half of the afternoon was devoted to Schumann, offering both the extroverted Florestan and inward Eusebius sides of the psychologically bifurcated composer.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen may be the composer’s most characteristic music of any genre. Certainly, Trifonov’s performance made one believe so, with the pianist’s natural eloquence evoking the varied essence of these “childhood scenes” with a gentle, touching whimsy. 

In the very first section (“Of Foreign Lands and People”), Trifonov’s confiding touch and inevitable rubato drew us in like a pianistic “once upon a time.” He conveyed the galumphing cheer (“A Curious Story”), bright vivacity “(Knight of the Hobbyhorse”), forced festivity (“An Important Event”) and not-too-serious introspection (“Almost Too Serious.”). The celebrated “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”) centerpiece was a highlight–uncommonly fresh and affecting in its childlike innocence.

There was much beautiful playing in Trifonov’s elegant take on Schumann’s Kreisleriana as well. Though here, in the early going, some of the tempo extremes (Schumann, characteristically, marked nearly every section “sehr” or “very”) seemed ironed out, the pianist’s moderated approach sacrificing a certain schizoid essence. In the concluding sections, Trifonov found more of the earthy keyboard diablerie though even he couldn’t convince one that Kreisleriana isn’t too long for its own good.

No complaints about the Toccata, which came in between the two larger works. Schumann’s motoric showpiece remains one of the most technically demanding, pre-Liszt piano works in the repertoire. Trifonov romped through the challenges with an improvisatory, even jazzy elan—pushing the pedal down hard in this insistent moto perpetuo with dynamics acutely observed and an extra burst of brilliance at the coda.

After being denounced by the Soviet cultural apparatchiks in 1948, Dmitri Shostakovich turned inward, writing little until Stalin’s death in 1953. Among the few works from this troubled period was the composer’s Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. Bach is the obvious inspiration but within the structural formality exists some of Shostakovich’s deepest and most personal music.

Trifonov selected a discerning set of five Preludes and Fugues from the complete set, and his sympathy and insight into his compatriot’s music brought the most communicative playing of the afternoon. 

There was a touching unadorned purity in the Prelude No. 4 in E minor, the ensuing double fugue growing inexorably to a malign intensity. No. 7 in A major provided fine contrast with the cheery fluidity of the prelude and shimmering  spring-like radiance of the fugue. No. 2 in A minor was artfully varied by Trifonov as well, the prelude leaping and virtuosic, the fugue imbued with spiky bravura. The gentle reverie of Prelude No. 5 in D major is among the composer’s loveliest inspirations, with a playful, almost jazz-like syncopation in the fugue.

The epic set concludes with No. 24 in D minor and Trifonov clearly sees this as the somber culmination, the pianist investing steadily increasing weight and power to the tragic prelude. In the final fugue, Trifonov built up the increasingly complex counterpoint with massive force, conveying a psychic desperation and frenzied struggle out of darkness similar to the composer’s own recording (less polished but equally moving). 

After that astounding display some Orchestra Hall ushers thought the long-running concert was over. Yet Trifonov had more pianistic derring-do up his sleeve with Three Movements from Petrushka.

Stravinsky arranged this transcription from his ballet at the request of Arthur Rubinstein and in Trifonov’s hands it served well as a thrilling, slam-bang finale. The pianist brought out the brilliance and glittering colors as surely as the title puppet’s lonely resentment. In the concluding Shrovetide Fair scene Trifonov’s athletic bravura was jaw-dropping, as he attacked the complexities with a velocity and sonorous heft that was joyous in its explosive, unapologetic virtuosity.

The vociferous ovations and repeated curtain calls brought Trifonov back out for two encores: a limpid rendering of Medtner’s “Alla Reminiscenza” from Forgotten Melodies and a sly and witty take on the Gavotte from Prokofiev’s Cinderella.

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