Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian pianist (twenty-seven), played a recital in Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. The recital had the feel of an occasion. The house was full, and expectant, and the recital was being “livestreamed,” I believe. In any case, television cameras were in place.
Trifonov’s program was Beethoven, Schumann, and Prokofiev, but some of the pieces were off the beaten path. And two of them were movements manqués.
The first of these was Beethoven’s Andante in F, otherwise known as the “Andante favori.” It was intended to be the slow movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata. Trifonov played the Andante beautifully and intelligently. He was simple, lyrical, and limpid. His playing was seamless, making you forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. I was reminded of the young Perahia.
Also, Trifonov understood the logic of the piece. “One composer is playing another,” I thought. Sure, Trifonov is not at the level of Beethoven, but he does compose, and this is an aid to a performer.
Trifonov’s playing was seamless, making you forget that the piano is a percussion instrument.
In his usual fashion, Trifonov went right into the next piece, without pause. This is some musicological conceit, I gather. And it can be confusing to the audience—as it was on this occasion. The next piece was a Beethoven sonata, Op. 31, No. 3, in E flat. After the first movement, the audience applauded, enthusiastically. I believe they thought the opening piece had just ended.
Before I get to the sonata, let me say one more word about the Andante—as a piece of music. I love it, as many people do. But it always strikes me as a middle movement—a piece without a home. An orphan. (Maybe that makes it all the more lovable, in the minds of many of us?)
In the first movement of Op. 31, No. 3, Trifonov played with great character. Great imagination. It was as though he were composing the piece on the spot, yet he was respectful of Beethoven all the while. He was communing with Beethoven, if you will. He has this gift—of slipping into the skin of another composer. All true musicians do.
Trifonov always plays with great intensity and commitment (hunched over the keyboard, like a young Monty Burns). He is a composer’s advocate.
At various points in Beethoven’s first movement, Trifonov went for soft spookiness. He was on “little cat feet.” Some of the notes failed to sound. He was at times too mousy, I believe, and could have used more body, more substance, in his playing. This was a problem in other pieces as well.
A fellow critic of mine damns a certain approach to piano playing as “kitten on the keys.” Now and then—just every so often—Trifonov is guilty of that, or prone to it.
Beethoven’s second movement, the Scherzo, was played with wonderful speed. Wonderful speed and character. The third, the Menuetto, began pure and lovely. Later, however, I would have liked a lusher, fatter sound—a Rubinstein sound, or a Barenboim sound. This is something you tend not to get from Trifonov.
The finale, marked Presto con fuoco, ought to be fast, impish, and fun. It was.
Trifonov showed that he is a virtuoso—a virtuosic poet of the piano, you could call him.
Trifonov then turned to Schumann—the fourteen pieces of Bunte Blätter, Op. 99. Trifonov showed that he is a poet of the piano, like Schumann. He showed that he has a Romantic heart, like Schumann. He showed that he is a virtuoso—a virtuosic poet of the piano, you could call him. Was Schumann? Probably, yes (but his playing does not show up on YouTube).
One of the pieces in Bunte Blätter has the title “Präludium.” In Trifonov’s hands, it was another “Winter Wind” Etude. (This is how we refer to Chopin’s Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11.)
In the Bunte Blätter, Trifonov showed a gift for proportion (among the other gifts). He knows what weight to lend to a note, a phrase, or indeed a piece—such as these miniatures from Schumann. The young man has self-possession. He also has emotional range, capable of the child-like and the maturely complex, both.
After the Bunte Blätter came an additional Schumann piece, the Presto passionato in G minor. This is the second of our movements manqués. Schumann originally planned it for his Sonata No. 2. In any event, Trifonov played it in accordance with its name: passionately fast.
The second half of the program brought a single work: a Prokofiev sonata, No. 8, composed in 1944. This is the third of Prokofiev’s three War Sonatas. As Trifonov began, I thought, “I’m sorry, that’s just not enough sound.” Trifonov was not providing enough volume, plain and simple. He was a will-o’-the-wisp. There was not enough body, not enough substance.
Otherwise, the guy was masterly. He had a sense of all the voices in the music, which seemed as multi-layered as Bach.
There were some missed notes, as there were throughout the recital (naturally). I enjoyed them—for two reasons. First, there were only a few of them. (A person might not enjoy many.) Second, they were a reminder that this was not a studio recording, and there is nothing like live.
Prokofiev’s second movement is Andante sognando, a dreaming Andante. I thought Trifonov played it too slowly—harmfully slowly—and that he was more wispy than dreamy. He cuted up the movement, I’m afraid. But, in the last movement—Vivace—there was a big payoff. Trifonov was impish, as in Beethoven’s Presto con fuoco. And he was a lawn mower.
I got this phrase from André Previn, who applied it to another André, Watts: Watts had played something “like a lawn mower.” That’s what Trifonov was: a glorious, impish, Prokofievian lawn mower.
There was more to come. Trifonov’s first encore was another Prokofiev piece, the Sarcasm No. 2. (There are five of those, and the most generally played is No. 3, which Trifonov has also used as an encore.) I don’t know how sarcastic it was, but it was certainly demonic. Trifonov played one more encore, some Chopin, arranged by Alfred Cortot: the slow movement of the Cello Sonata. Did Trifonov sing, richly. Talk about body and substance—and beauty. Yes.