Daniil Trifonov at Wigmore Hall

Schubert, transc. Liszt
Schwanengesang – Die Stadt
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Valse sentimentale Op.51/6; Echo rustique, Op.72/13; Tendres reproches, Op.72/3; Un poco di Chopin, Op.72/15
12 Etudes, Op.10

Daniil Trifonov (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 14 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Daniil Trifonov is twenty-one. Eighteen months ago he was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then he entered the gladiatorial arena known as piano competitions. In 2010 he gained Third Prize in the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Last year he took the Gold Medal in the International Tchaikovsky Competition and he also won the Arthur (sic) Rubinstein Piano Competition. This was Trifonov’s Wigmore Hall debut. The programme was certainly eclectic, but one has to question the wisdom of placing such an immense work as Schubert’s B flat Piano Sonata in the first half of a programme; and there was no discernible link between the Tchaikovsky and the Chopin. The opening of Liszt’s wonderful arrangement of Schubert’s song, Frühlingsglaube (D686), was disjointed. The phrasing in the remainder came dangerously close to sounding like Semprini. ‘Die Stadt’ fared better but was too slow at the outset. The playing only really came to life in the more-virtuoso central section. In recompense the sound of the Fazioli was magnificent, putting bland modern Steinways to shame.

The great hymn that forms the first subject of D960 was taken at a flowing tempo, but the bass trill was under-characterised, although the second theme was taken a tempo and without affectation. Unforgivably Trifonov ignored the exposition repeat and launched into a rather prosaic account of the development, where the wonderful preparation for the recapitulation passed for little. Yet, despite all of this, the overall atmosphere of the playing demonstrated a highly distinctive musical personality at work. Trifonov was not able to delve below the surface of the slow movement, but the varied dynamics in the left-hand almost made the underlying pattern of the first subject into a counter-melody. Unfortunately the central section lacked power and threat. The return of the first theme lacked transcendental beauty and the tempo was faster than on its first appearance. The scherzo needed to dance more but the trio was taken at the same tempo. At the start of the finale one was acutely aware of the manipulation of micro-dynamics at mezzo-forte and below and the contrast with the explosive ff martial outburst that followed after the second subject. This aspect of Trifonov’s playing, where ppp and forte disappear, was present throughout the evening. He will need to avoid it becoming a mannerism. The short coda brought real panache.

Tchaikovsky’s towering genius did not extend to his piano music. The chosen pieces were instantly forgettable, as was Trifonov’s rather precious right-hand phrasing in Echo rustique; however his touch and playful rhythm in the final piece were delightful. Chopin’s Etudes are one of the severest technical and expressive tests that a pianist can face. No.1 is about playing often wide-spaced right-hand arpeggios (which must be absolutely even) at speed over a sparse repeated bass. Trifonov’s right-hand was uneven and the texture muddied by over-use of the sustaining pedal. His use of micro-dynamics served him well in the chromatic A minor, where the rise and fall and delicacy of phrasing were exceptional. The three voices in the soulful E major piece were once again rather precious, and there was no true rubato or feeling. No.4 was fast, but devoid of mischief and the way in which the melody switches hands was only hinted at because of excessive pedalling. No.5 has become known as ‘Black Keys’ (Chopin attached no names to any of the pieces) and was rhythmically imprecise, while the Sixth lacked emotional involvement and the C major was – one presumes – meant to sound elfin, but was contrived. As the cycle continued it was obvious that Trifonov can play at exceptional speed, but there is far more to technique than this and in the penultimate Study the rolled chords and arpeggios were pulled all over the place. Cortot or Artur Rubinstein might have got away with it, but Trifonov didn’t. In the final Etude (C minor) the right hand’s triumphant chorale was ill-defined and there was a lack of true power – as opposed to volume – and clarity.

There were five encores, the second of which, Cziffra’s outrageous paraphrase of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, brought the audience to its feet, although the Hungarian’s own playing of it had far greater definition and devilry. Trifonov has enormous potential, but at present his emotional range is limited and he (like so many of today’s automata) mistakes speed for method.

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