At best Daniil Trifonov is phenomenal. At worst he's troubling. His gestures, gesticulations and grimaces disturb. I'd go so far as to say he's unwatchable, certainly in the spot-lit, emotionally bared, eyes-staring-out-of-socket-and-soul, limp-hair-brushing-the-keyboard close-up of live-streams such as the present Carnegie Hall/Medici one. Trifonov is touring this programme currently – a curiously (non-)planned affair indulging in a seventy-two-minute first half to stretch most concentration spans.
Beethoven's F-major Andante favori (discarded from the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata) was measured and polite, concerned with harmonies and futuristic twists but not as graceful in the B-flat episode, nor as temporally steady, as one might reasonably have had the right to expect (Richter remains the impeccable model). Leading on without a break, the Sonata from the “new way” Opus 31 cycle tripped up his fingers breathlessly (those right-hand bars, 53-56 and 177-82, are among the most treacherous quick-sands in the repertory). I questioned his perfunctory approach, his thrown-away rhythms, his pages in the first, second and fourth movements regressing Beethoven into some twisted, bizarre caricature of Scarlatti. His idea of Allegretto vivace was furiously tempered. Yes, his staccato is dab, he can punch home a fortissimo chord better than the best, but ending up with a school drill against the clock is not the point, the more so when notes go walk-about. The Finale raced off with loss of shape and punctuation, wanting in grace and breeding. As for the Minuet, moderato e grazioso, Trifonov turned this into a pontifical processional with bruisingly emphasised octaves of ungainly spectacle. Introducing a swelling hairpin in the fading calando of the concluding bars, however slightly, was just another perversity in a cavalier account. What has Trifonov learnt about Beethoven or style from his teachers? On this showing not much, there was nothing remotely to excite or impress. A little reading, some educated listening, a dose of disciplined, self-critical reassessment, a masterclass or two, would not go amiss. Looking back to Gilels might be a start.
The fourteen disparate movements comprising the late Bunte Blätter collection (Richter/Russian territory) add up to a lengthy cycle. Extremes of mood, tempo and dynamics, dark minor-key intensity, swirling, impassioned right-hand patterns (not always clear) offset against muddily pedalled left-hand bass lines made up something of Trifonov's overview. The slow numbers brought out the introspective best in him, the fourth of the ‘Albumblätter’ aspiring to the epic, likewise the funeral tread of the D-minor ‘Marsch’ (if not always pianissimo), with sculpted climaxes of Brucknerian gravel. Neither the ‘Abendmusik’ (a minuet briskly taken, contrasting Beethoven's earlier) nor G-minor Scherzo settled completely. Personal idiosyncracies enlivened the closing ‘Geschwindmarsch’, taking us down different roads from Richter – principally the otherwise spurious piano/forte contrasts (effective enough albeit at the expense of left-hand rhythmic niceties) and the gratuitous speeding-up/holding-back of the last page. Following without a break (odd that), the Presto passionato, edited by Brahms in 1866, the original Finale of the Opus 22 Sonata, was a white-knuckle ride, prodigious in physical ability and speed if not precision detail. That Trifonov can drive a Steinway around Monte Carlo at full tilt was in no doubt, but the kind of turbulence, the urge and baleful belligerence he released was not of a kind one particularly wants to get close to.
Prokofiev's Eighth Sonata – the third of his 'War' trilogy, premiered by Gilels in Moscow in December 1944 – explored initially other mood states. Glassy textures, linear solitude, basaltic lower voices. But then back to turmoil with the first Allegro (physically pro-active, difficult to watch) – plenty of requisite inquietude, raw battle cry and stabbed phrasing, for sure, but what of the moderato qualification in the score, a deliberation not dispensed with until later? The middle movement calls for a dreaming, dolce quality. Expressively restrained, frigid even, Trifonov managed to get halfway, impatient perhaps to launch into the athleticism of the Finale which, worked hard and manically, duly stormed, basses pounded hard, the rhetoric double-fingered – the episodes of reflection the less beautiful though for the instrument having been so percussed out of tune. The final jangling moments, Trifonov rising, standing, to emphasise the theatre and electricity of attack he wanted, pulverised the ears.
Of his three encores, the second and third of Prokofiev's Sarcasms, Opus 17, high-wire mechanics at a premium, told us nothing we didn't already know, exposing this artist's limitations to the point of tedium. Alfred Cortot's 1953 transcription of the Largo from Chopin's Cello Sonata offered scope for richer pickings. Placating to a degree, yet the lack of bel canto and sustained line, the understatement of the music's more sensuous possibilities, made for a strangely wooden encounter. In Trifonov's hands it sounded and felt like an inexpert arrangement, not the genuine article.