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Mr. Trifonov Whispers, and Mr. Trifonov Roars

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/12/2023 -  
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Nouvelle suites de pièces de clavecin: Suite in A Minor
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 12 in F Major, K. 332
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Variations sérieuses, Opus 54
Ludwig von Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B Flat “Hammerklavier”, Opus 106

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)

D. Trifonov (© Dario Acosta/Deutsche Grammophon)

Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.
Ludwig van Beethoven

I try to conceal art with art.
Jean-Philippe Rameau

Every movie cultist remembers that weird wonderful Dr. Seuss-penned movie called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Last night, I finally realized that “Dr. T” was of course Daniil Trifonov. If not 5,000 fingers, he had a lot more than our usual ten.

Yet digits are one thing. Understanding moods, creations and history are others. Mr. Trifonov played a Rameau Suite with pinprick accuracy and Gallic elegance. His Mendelssohn displayed the early Romantic who would have whizzed into Lisztian pyrotechnics had he lived longer. As to the Beethoven Hammerklavier, Mr. Trifonov subjected his Steinway less to Klavier–and substantially more to Hammer.

Which–depending on the listener–could have been a showy accumulation of those magical fingers, or an extravaganza of Beethoven’s dazzling emotions. More on that later.

Mr. Trifonov started with a Rameau Suite which could have put Louis XIV to sleep. Yet such quietude was deceiving. Yes, barely looking at the packed audience at entry, he sat motionless, played the opening like the notes were silk, and went on to five more movements, each more difficult than the other. “Les Trois Mains” was, as the title has it, a brilliant contrast of five‑note glissandi with simultaneous more thundery passages. (The Sun King probably woke up.). But it was the final gavotte with its series of variations, one more furious than the other, where Mr. Trifonov’s fingers moved with electrical speed.

The following Mozart F Major Sonata was like a reversion to the opening Rameau. A bit too elegant. Yet, like the advanced techniques of the Rameau, the Mozart became more and more daring, and characteristically, the pianist made each transition sudden, with the following movements dazzling.

(I remember hearing Elliott Carter describe Mozart’s sudden transitions without any preparation, as avant‑garde inspirations. That was the way Mr. Trifonov handled them.)

To me, the Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses was the highlight of the evening. Like the Diabelli Variations, the composer was asked for a light short piece–and couldn’t help composing seemingly endless mutations. Actually only 18 after the noble theme. Yet Mr. Trifonov gave personality to each one. From the most liquid legato to the bedazzling più agitato, this was a combination of flawless technique–and uttermost Romantic poetry.

After the intermission, Mr. Trifonov cheated his audience out of those powerful opening eight Hammerklavier notes. Just as the audience applauded his entrance, he skipped over to the piano and started the Beethoven, but the startling D-B-flats were concealed over the sound of a few thousand hands clapping.

A shame. But after that it was a no-notes-barred production. Beethoven’s Allegro became a sizzling Allegro con violenza, where even the gentler moments seemed more ominous than melodic. He took the Allegro scherzo without a break, and while every measure was clear, one wanted him to take a pianistic break.

That came with the poetic Adagio, followed by a verisimilitude of anarchic finale.

One thought of Stravinsky’s comment that he couldn’t stand Beethoven’s “late period” music. Understood. Stravinsky’s own later works were so severely disciplined that the hell-breaking-loose Beethoven–no matter how well structured–must have sounded like chaos. Daniil Trifonov did the impossible. He gave the endless ideas, the cries and whispers, the jolting notes, an illusion of intemperance. Yet his technique was so sterling, so perfect, that the disorder had a structure, an order all its own.

In other words, this was not a Hammerklavier for words. It was an emotional experience. One could have been moved or exhausted. He left no middle path.

Usually after such a blockbuster encore, I’m averse to encores. In this case, the more of Trifonov, the better. I didn’t quite recognize them all, but was told the first was Johnny Green’s I Cover the Waterfront. (And he did the Art Tatum arrangement with sparkling joy.) Next was the slow movement of Scriabin’s Third Piano Sonata. Last were excerpts from Variations on a Theme of Chopin by Frederic Mompou.

As a ConcertoNet reviewer, I should have recognized them all. Forgive my appalling ignorance.

Harry Rolnick



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