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Review: Trifonov Transcends In ‘Decades’ at Zankel Hall

Daniil Trifonov

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 7, 2018

Daniil Trifonov and his monumental Perspectives recital at Zankel Hall on Friday night is the stuff legends are made of. Calling the recital “Decades,” the 27 year old Russian virtuoso, already renowned for dazzling Liszt and Rachmaninoff, plotted a survey of pieces from each decade of the twentieth century. The scope of the program was formidable; to describe it as ambitious would be an understatement.

While the conceit of the recital — the notion being to illustrate the evolution of piano composition in this turbulent era in which so much happened to musical expression — was not a complete one beyond providing a framework for a riveting progression of fascinating, sometimes fiendishly difficult, pieces. A musically rapturous occasion, it was a privilege to witness artistry of such transcendence.

Trifonov’s stage presence is not ostentatious. He seems to exist solely for the music. As he takes his seat at the instrument and convenes with the score, he gives himself over to it, as if in a trance. His journey through the twentieth century began, logically, with Alban Berg’s single movement Sonata, Op. 1 from 1908, an early hinting of the break-down of traditional tonality that characterizes the transition from late German Romanticism to modernism. The decadence of Berg’s dense, searching anxiety dripped from Trifonov’s fingers.

Continuing without applause, or even a moment’s repose, we move on to a contrasting brand of pianistic expression, Sergei Prokofiev’s aptly titled Sarcasms, Op. 17, five brazen, nose-thumbing character pieces from the composer’s ornery period. Trifonov brought uncommon clarity to this work from pre-revolutionary Russia, highlighting the witty tunefulness and delicious textures hiding in plain sight amid the crashing dissonances.

Béla Bartók’s 1926 classic Out of Doors suite follows, and like Prokofiev, treats the piano partly as a percussion instrument. But neither Prokofiev nor Bartók completely shun tonality. It’s interesting that Trifonov’s traipse through the twentieth century largely clings to the tonal. In Out of Doors, as in the Prokofiev, Trifonov unearths the lyricism and heart beneath the rhythmic, percussive outer skeleton of these scores. We also hear his exceptional control in the hypnotic slow movement, “The Night’s Music,” a tapestry of various planes of sound replicating the humming of the night, the buzzing of crickets and flickers of fireflies. The fiendishly difficult last movement, “The Chase,” almost sounds easy in his hands.

Most pianists would have collapsed from exhaustion after those three works alone, yet without pause, Trifonov then gives a probing reading of Aaron Copland’s intense, thorny Piano Variations from 1930, emphasizing how Copland’s acerbic, angular ideas accumulate into rich harmonies of steely fortitude. In profound contrast to this, the first half is rounded off with Olivier Messiaen’s “Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus” from his Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus of 1944, a work of quiet, sublime ecstasy, which Trifonov plays spellbindingly and movingly.

The second half of the program does not relent in its ambition. Four selections from György Ligeti’s stark, bizarre Musica ricercata from the early fifties provide maximum contrast to the delirious religiosity of the Messiaen. Pushing the boundary between extreme dissonance and beauty, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX (representing the ’60s) is based on mathematical principles and begins in the time signature of 142/8. In seemingly random clusters of sound and stardust-like figurations, it’s as if Stockhausen is relaying the noise of outer space.

Trifonov instantly relieves the perplexing tension with John Adam’s 1977 minimalist work China Gates. He displays extraordinary restraint and patience here, creating a pallid sheen of constant soft eighth-notes, never wavering in tempo or dynamic, keen to the instructions in Adam’s score, allowing the gently shifting hues of the music to occur naturally.

John Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato, based on a familiar (but only scantly hinted at) strain from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, was written for the 1985 Van Cliburn Competition, and involves some improvisation. While not the showiest finale Trifonov might have chosen for this concert, it seemed appropriate given the way Corigliano’s compositional approach seems to define the state of musical composition at the end of the twentieth century, incorporating tonality, atonality, chance, minimalism. An understated example of maximalism, perhaps, and befitting the artistry of this extraordinary pianist, who seems capable of anything.

As an encore, and a welcome salve to evening’s exploratory depths, Trifonov played another twentieth century look back at a composer of yore, Rachmaninoff’s beguiling transcription of Bach’s Gavotte from the Violin Partita in E Major. I doubt the walls of Zankel Hall have heard such an enthusiastic, or well-deserved, ovation.

Danil Trifonov in recital at Zankel Hall

Danil Trifonov in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


Daniil Trifonov, piano, in “Decades,” part of his Perspectives series / Carnegie Hall, at Zankel Hall on May 4, 2018.

BERG Piano Sonata, Op. 1
PROKOFIEV Sarcasms, Op. 17
BARTÓK Out of Doors
COPLAND Piano Variations, 1930
MESSIAEN “Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus” from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
LIGETI Selections from Musica ricercata
– Sostenuto
– Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale
– Allegro con spirito
– Tempo di valse (poco vivace – “à l’orgue de Barbarie”)
JOHN ADAMS China Gates
CORIGLIANO Fantasia on an Ostinato

BACH Gavotte from Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (arr. S. Rachmaninoff)


Cover: Daniil Trifonov in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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