On Saturday night, Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian pianist, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. The recital had a title, actually: “Hommage à Chopin.” The first half of the program was dedicated to pieces having to do with Chopin; the second half brought a piece composed by Chopin himself.
Trifonov took the stage, gave a brief, sullen nod, and got to work. With his beard and all, he looked the very image of the brooding young Russian artist-intellectual.
He began with the Variations on a Theme of Chopin by Frederic Mompou. Where have these been all my life? To my knowledge, Alicia de Larrocha did not record them. I believe they were not even in her repertoire. I count on her to have introduced me to such music!
In any event, the theme that Mompou treats is Chopin’s Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7, that brief, perfect thing.
Trifonov played the variations beautifully. So beautifully. He was all refinement and taste. He wove the variations together like the most masterly seamstress around.
He then played four little pieces—very short ones—the first of them well-known, but the others obscure. The well-known one was the “Chopin” section of Schumann’s Carnaval. And the others?
An étude by Grieg, Op. 73, No. 5. It’s called “Hommage à Chopin” (the title of Trifonov’s recital). Then there was Barber’s Nocturne, Op. 33. And Tchaikovsky’s Un poco di Chopin, Op. 72, No. 15. I was glad to get to know these pieces a little.
In them, Trifonov demonstrated many of his skills. These include a singing tone—and the ability to play lightning fast, with purest legato. Trifonov’s arms are wet spaghetti. There is zero tightness in them. He can do anything he wants at the keyboard.
He ended the first half of his program with another composer’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The composer in question is Rachmaninoff, and his theme is another Chopin prelude: that in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20. It is big, grave, and chordal. It requires that a pianist play deep into the keys, producing a virile, rich sound. In the past, I have doubted Trifonov’s ability to do this. On Saturday night, he did it with ease.
The rest of his playing was of the highest caliber, too. He can play absolutely clearly—with no muddle whatsoever—and at the same time be butter-smooth. This is not all that common. His Rachmaninoff was covered in beauty and intelligence, from first to last.
I have never heard the work played better—and may not.
That piece on the second half of the program was Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, known as the “Funeral March.” I could pick at the player. For example, I thought the middle section of the Scherzo was too slow, and slightly harmed by rubato. Yet this would indeed be picking. The funeral-march movement was a bit eccentric—markedly personal—but entirely defensible.
And the finale, that Presto? It was famously likened to “the wind howling around gravestones.” (By whom is unclear.) Trifonov is born to play this movement. It requires evenness, facility, beauty, and intensity. Trifonov played it superbly.
When I was a child, I loved Chopin, as one should. Then I had a snippy period where I was tired of him, and thought he was overrated. (I think I was anti-Romantic in general.) Then I grew up and recognized his greatness, unchangeably.
You remember what Schumann said when encountering Chopin’s work: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.” So true.