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The Thinking Young Man’s Explosions

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/11/2011 -  
Serge Prokofiev: Selections from Romeo and Juliet: “Friar Lawrence”, “Masks” & “Montagues and Capulets”, Opus 64bis & 64ter
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 10

Daniil Trifonov (Piano)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

D. Trifonov (© Courtesy of the Artist)

Poor, poor Daniil Trifonov. Having conquered virtually every piano competition from the Tchaikovsky to the Rubinstein, having performed with virtually every major orchestra throughout the world, having been one of the greatest international draws in concerts and recordings–all at the tender age of barely 21 years old–what is Mr. Trifonov going to do for the next 70 years?

The question is of course rhetorical. Mr. Trifonov has the world at his feet. Not only that, but from hearing his performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto last night, he is so completely different from all the other wunderkind that he is obviously going for the art, not the household name status.

One would expect, for his age and attainments, a Tchaikovsky of fire and brimstone, a mad race to finish those quadruple octave runs faster than anyone else would be his due. But that wasn’t Mr. Trifonov’s path.

Instead, this was the thinking man’s Tchaikovsky. No, he didn’t eschew the blazing measures when necessary. But from the beginning, Mr. Trifonov was ready to show off the notes of the composer, not the fingers of the artist. His touch for the first themes was delicate, not forceful. He wasn’t afraid to change the dynamics of single notes, from loud to soft, delicate to plangent, keeping the sense of balance, the original inspiration.

Most pianists his age have every right–like hammy stage actors–to calculate effects, to lean for the big effect. Mr. Trifonov seemed to be thinking about the notes, making decisions as he went along. Not that this was perfect piano playing by any means. His first runs on the piano were blurred, sometimes into insensibility. He made some errors in the Finale (not from undue speed, but perhaps too much thinking).

But this only made him more human, not robotically brilliant. From the blurred lines in the first movement, he produced measures so delicate and precise (not precious!), that he could have been playing Chopin (which he did brilliantly as an encore). It wasn’t that Mr. Trifonov’s style was a melange, it was always the Russian master. But he wasn’t afraid to show that this old warhorse of a concerto didn’t have to run to be effective. It could canter, trot, run full speed and simply fall back, to enjoy its graceful beauty.

By the finish, one felt that this work has been degraded by flashier players, for Mr. Trifonov painted a richer, deep absorbing picture. With most pianist his age, one comes away saying, “Wow!!! Let’s see what else he can do.” With Mr. Trifonov, one feels that his technical attainments, while enormous (witness, his encore of the Liszt Campanella) are secondary to his attempts to grasp the concept.

V. Gergiev (© Mariinsky Theatre)

Maestro Gergiev, obviously appreciates such a performer. His own orchestra, with its lovely flute solos in the slow movement, and holding back in the finale, has a respect for artists like this which is rare.

He started off with the first of three Russians, in a trio of Romeo and Juliet movements. Which frankly made me angry. Such an amazing full score, second only to Sacre for ballet music, deserves to played in its entirety. Yes, Mr. Gergiev knew what he was doing, from the languorous opening to some great percussion playing, but oh! To hear the complete Prokofiev would have been heavenly.

He did play Shostakovich’s First Symphony the way it should be played. No hidden Shosty woes, no symbolic themes, no autobiographical motifs. And except for the Mahlerian slow movement, this is a work of dance and circuses, great effects and hints of inward depths to come. Mr. Gergiev, without either a dais or a baton, made his players dance was well.

Like Daniil Trofonov, Dmitri Shostakovich was just on the early side of 20 when he finished it. Nobody could foretell his future, just as nobody knows where the pianist (himself a composer) will go as they years go on.

But (not to coin a phrase), we are all ears.

Harry Rolnick



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