Daniil Trifonov: A pianist ahead of his time


Daniil Trifonov. (Roger Mastroianni/Roger Mastroianni)

The Romantic genius is one of our more ironclad stereotypes: the artist who moves slightly in a different world, his head preoccupied with different thoughts, not quite at home in the every day. So when someone sets out to incorporate that typus, it’s easy to surround him with the veils of our imaginings.

Enter the 23-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov: pale of skin, lank brown hair hanging down the back of his head, bending and bobbing and weaving over the keys while his long, slender fingers caress and thunder and draw out and press down until every drop of music is wrung out. When he last played in Washington a year ago, I — astounded by the visceral, ethereal quality of his playing — compared him to Franz Liszt. So, I later found out, have a majority of the other journalists who have written about him.

Trifonov, who will make his National Symphony Orchestra debut this week in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, is also living out the storybook overnight-sensation, star-is-born narrative so beloved in the popular imagination. In 2011, he won both the Rubinstein competition in Israel and the legendary Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, having recently placed third in the Chopin competition. The combination rocketed him to renown and led to a spate of major international debuts, including a tour with Valery Gergiev that brought him to George Mason University, where audiences in this region had their first sight of him; debuts with the so-called Big Five orchestras in the United States last season (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia); and a recital at Carnegie Hall that was recorded live for his new record label, Deutsche Grammophon, and released in February.

None of this is quite as straightforward as it seems. Competitions, even the Tchaikovsky competition, don’t automatically make stars, though winning a lot of them at the same time certainly doesn’t hurt. And Romantic-looking young men with profound pianistic gifts may prove in a phone conversation to be not neurasthenic divas who require kid-glove treatment, but affable young men eager to talk about the music they love. You can’t quite package Trifonov in what’s become another favored classical music trope these days, that of showing that great musicians are just normal guys and gals like the rest of us. (He studies in the States! He has a girlfriend!) But comparisons with the eccentric pianist divas of the past and present seem misguided.

Trifonov is an open, friendly person who is, in interviews, clearly eager to be helpful and to connect with those around him. He just happens to eat, breathe and sleep classical music.

When the pianist Zsolt Bognar, interviewing him for the online video series “Living the Classical Life,” asked him how he spent his free time, he lapsed into a long, bemused silence. “There is not much time,” he finally said, “for any other activity.”

Leave the comparisons with Liszt, the showman, and think more of Rachmaninoff, the pragmatist. “He is one of my musical idols,” Trifonov said. Like Rachmaninoff, he was born in Russia; his parents were both musicians and made considerable sacrifices to move the family to Moscow so that their son could study at the Gnessin School of Music. (He made his debut with orchestra at the age of 8.) Like Rachmaninoff, he is a performing virtuoso in the Russian school, although Trifonov moved to the States after graduation, at his teacher’s recommendation, to study with Sergey Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “It was a completely right decision,” he says.

And like Rachmaninoff, he is also a composer.

“The time when it was normal for a pianist to be a performer has gone,” he says. “It’s very interesting to go [in] the same direction.” He is pursuing a degree in composition. And one of the highlights of his crowded spring calendar is a concert with the orchestra at the Cleveland Institute in April, when he will give the world premiere of a piano concerto that he wrote himself.

In the meantime, he’s immersed in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini rhapsody, already a specialty, and now a vehicle for debuts with four notable American orchestras. His Washington performances follow others in San Francisco, Detroit and Houston. The “Rhapsody” is a favorite vehicle for young virtuosos, mingling as it does complex technical demands with big schmaltzy tunes. But Trifonov sees in it a lot more than just a pretty face.

“The writing of Rachmaninoff is so very different from other concerti,” he says, “in his usage of the dialogue between piano and orchestra, but also in terms of the structure.”

The piece is a set of 24 variations on a theme from Paganini’s 24th and final caprice, but what Trifonov means is less the variation structure than the piece’s sense of drama. “There is much more characterization,” he says, than you find in other concertos, pointing out that the piece, which premiered in 1934, was subsequently used as a ballet score by Fokine, a choreography that underlined the contrast between good and evil running through the piece, with variations alternating between a more classical and a more popular style.

Take the juxtaposition of the 17th variation and the famous 18th variation, which sounds like a big pop tune and is immediately familiar even to a casual listener from movie and TV soundtracks. The 17th, Trifonov says, features chromatic notes that the composer often “used as a symbol of his religious work;” the 18th, by contrast (which is an inversion of the original theme), “can be taken as a look back at his past.”

This analysis demonstrates a few things about Trifonov. One, he is in no sense an academic analyst: he is all about finding the emotions in the score, when he’s not thundering out its fireworks. “An odd combination of clangorous ferocity and sensitivity,” said the critic Joshua Kosman of his San Francisco performance of the Rachmaninoff in January.

Another is that he thinks like a composer. And a third is that he loves Rachmaninoff.

With all of the concerts that Trifonov has on his plate at the moment, there is little time for composing. But there is certainly time for Rachmaninoff. “The project I’m very much looking forward to,” he says, “is the complete Rachmaninoff recording project.” Stay tuned for the complete Trifonov, a decade or two down the road.

Daniil Trifonov

will play with the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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