Daniil Trifonov is the newest heir to the venerable patrimony of Russian pianism. Aged thirty-one, he originally hails from Nizhny Novgorod—“Lower” Novgorod, one of Russia’s two great medieval towns that bear the Novgorod name—but was schooled at both Russian and American conservatories. Now a New Yorker, he is a regular presence on the American stage; last week, I heard him in recital at Carnegie Hall.
How intriguing to begin with Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, Op. 39 (1878), a set of twenty-four miniatures for piano. Tchaikovsky dedicated it to his favorite nephew—he wanted it to be a contribution to the canon of music for children, which he thought “very poor.” It has its moments of humor and playfulness, but the overall tone of maturity and sensitivity with which Tchaikovsky infused this music is remarkable. This shows particularly in the centerpiece sequence of “The Sick Doll,” “The Doll’s Funeral,” “Waltz,” and “The New Doll.” Rightly, Trifonov played with no mock-seriousness or cuteness; he allowed the music to validate the psychology of the child, for whom fantasy and reality are mixed and the emotional stakes of characters in stories are very high.
Trifonov can be a heart-on-his-sleeve player, but he was reverential in his Tchaikovsky, even a touch reserved. Perhaps this is appropriate for this gentle and, ultimately, religious offering for the curious and intelligent child; after all, Tchaikovsky starts at “Morning Prayer” and leaves us “In Church.” I think of Gustav Mahler’s instructions for the finale (“A Child’s Vision of Paradise”) of his Fourth Symphony: “To be sung with childlike, cheerful expression; entirely without parody.”
Tchaikovsky wrote his Children’s Album in the shadow of Schumann’s magisterial Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”). Schumann composed his Fantasie in C, Op. 17, Trifonov’s next selection, at around the same time as the Kinderszenen, during his arduous courtship and engagement with his future wife, Clara. At the same time, he was occupied with raising money for the construction of a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, which this work’s publication helped fund (the fruit of his labors still stands in Bonn’s Münsterplatz).
What reservation Trifonov had in the Tchaikovsky he shed for the Schumann. The pianist, who wastes as little time onstage as possible, launched into its opening chord before he had even come to rest on the piano bench. Yet he was not rushed in his playing, and his tempi were on the slower side. The first movement, a love song—or torch song—for Clara, gives way to the triumphant Mäßig and the slow, jewel-like closing movement. With tasteful rubato, Trifonov drew out this last movement’s Beethovian, melancholic sentiment. One can see why its dedicatee, Liszt, prized its beauty and respected its difficulty: at any moment, one wouldn’t be too surprised to hear Liszt’s “Liebestraum” breaking free of the elegiac main theme. Liszt returned the favor of Schumann’s dedication with none other than his B-minor Sonata two decades later.
Let’s keep the B-minor Sonata in mind as we turn to the opening measures of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K. 475. Liszt must have drunk from this well also when he penned the rumbling opening of his Faustian sonata. After the intermission, Trifonov gave us a serious and measured reading of the Fantasia. His attack was deliberate—precise, yet delicate, which is what this darkly colored but ultimately untragic piece calls for.
There’s a fair touch of tragedy (or rather despair) in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a three-movement piano showpiece, each movement a kind of watercolor sketch of a different poem by the Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand. Trifonov owned the piece, and his playing was gossamer-light when needed and stark when called for, as in the middle movement, “Le gibet,” an evocation of a body swinging on the gallows in a desert as a distant bell tolls. Writing Gaspard, Ravel claimed he sought to “caricature” Romanticism. “Le gibet” seems to pick up where, say, Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold,” that fountainhead of Romanticism, left off; Ravel skips the auto-da-fé and sketches the forlorn day after instead. Trifonov’s pianism drew from an orchestral pallette of colors: hints of flutes, violins, and darker brass tones, to name a few. This was fitting for Ravel, who frequently reworked his piano pieces for orchestra; with the fiendishly difficult last movement of “Gaspard,” he even said he “wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano.” So it sounded.
Scriabin’s single-movement Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53, closed out the program. Trifonov is at home in his Scriabin—at home enough to take great liberties with rubato and pedaling and to make its emotional landscape into something of his own. With, say, a Mozart sonata, such editorializing might sound absurd; with the music of that genius-madman Scriabin, who saw colors in music and constructed a metaphysical system to match his musical vision, it seems right.
Trifonov sprinted back for an encore—J. S. Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” such a well-worn chestnut that a few chuckles could be heard throughout the audience when he began. Perhaps they were expecting a bait and switch. But play on Trifonov did, in Myra Hess’s famous 1926 transcription, which she performed in the National Gallery in London to rapt radio audiences during the Blitz. Already transposed by Hess onto a quasi-Romantic plane, Trifonov took Bach’s theme one step further, slowing his tempo to make each measure meditative, prayerful, though maybe a touch sentimental. The historically exacting listener squirmed, I am sure, but it seemed exactly what was needed for an encore to a Trifonov recital—sugary sweet, to be sure, but no fine meal is complete without a dessert to finish.