Daniil Trifonov looks like Franz Liszt, or like a 19th-century caricature of Liszt: long scarecrow limbs, torso hunched over the keyboard, lanky hair flopping over a bone-pale face.
He also sounds like Liszt. We can’t actually know what Liszt sounded like, but we do know he was a virtuoso, and he mesmerized his listeners, and people found something distinctive and other-worldly and spiritual about him.
All those things hold true of Trifonov, as well, though they add up to a pretty pale description of playing that can only be described as a visceral experience. Hearing Trifonov is like having a deep-tissue massage: You keep wanting to pull away from the sheer intensity of it, and you come out feeling as if your reality had been slightly altered. His recital Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society, was a knockout.
It was meant to be. It consisted of not one but three shots across the bow: Scriabin’s early Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Liszt’s big, dark Sonata in B Minor and the 24 Chopin Preludes. Translation: a virtuosic fusillade, followed by a trip into the depths and heights of Romanticism, and culminating with a survey of the whole range of pianistic ability — a collection of pieces that require both a light, deft touch and a sure vision to pull off in the aggregate.
A lot of the individual preludes are well-known to listeners, but when played together, as a 40-minute work, they take on a different dimension.
Actually, it’s hard to say how long they took Saturday; the performance seemed to last about five minutes, and even the familiar ones didn’t sound all that familiar in Trifonov’s hands. In the Prelude in G, No. 3, for instance, it was the lower line that became sprightly and syncopated, while the higher melody flowed evenly, as if containing it.
The program signaled that Trifonov, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, is more than just a technical virtuoso — though he is that, in spades. It’s also a program that anchors him in the grand 19th-century piano tradition. The newest pieces on the program were two of the encores: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Bach’s “Gavotte” and Agosti’s arrangement of the Danse Infernale from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” — and they are hardly modern music. That is not a criticism, simply an observation. To resort to a cliche — and most descriptions of Trifonov’s playing wind up sounding like cliches — it would be fine to hear him play the phone book, if he found a way to do so.
If you simply describe Trifonov’s playing, it might sound hopelessly overdone. The way, for instance, that he ferociously grabbed the start of the Liszt and pulled it out to its limits, obscuring the descending figure in a haze of pedal, only to bring it up short in a dull, muted, unresonanced chord at the bottom. Or how, later in the piece, he built to a tantrumlike, key-pounding climax and then froze in a moment of protracted silence while the bruised air quivered.
Part of what made the performance remarkable is that it could go to extremes, even to the edge of the grotesque, without seeming exaggerated. Or rather, the exaggeration felt like a necessity — the only way to communicate what needed to happen in this music.
And the Chopin, in particular, showed how restrained he can be: The softness of the 13th prelude, in F-sharp, when the cycle settles into slightly longer works; a gentle rubato in the 21st; or the seamless, pauseless shift between two preludes that usually seem sharply contrasting — the fiery 16th in B-flat Minor and the lilting 17th in A-flat. One thing Trifonov has mastered is the art of knowing how to finish; he can give a piece, and a note, space to come to an end and die away, giving finality (as at the end of the 24th prelude) without vehemence.
Trifonov has appeared in the greater Washington area a couple of times, playing with Gergiev and the Mariinsky at George Mason University in 2011, and with the National Philharmonic at Strathmore last February. A recital with an artist of this ability in a space as relatively small as the Terrace Theater is a luxury.
Through three works and three satisfying encores, building from the relatively restrained Liszt arrangement of Schumann’s “Widmung” through the Bach arrangement to, finally, the let-it-all-hang-out virtuosity of the Stravinsky, the crowd certainly enjoyed it.