Arts & Events

A Stunning Chopin Recital by Pianist Daniil Trifonov

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 03, 2017 - 07:23:00 PM

On Monday evening, October 30, Davies Hall was nearly filled to capacity with audiences who came to hear the much-heralded 26 year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in a recital of works by Frédéric Chopin and various composers who were influenced by Chopin. Though this was not Trifonov’s first appearance in Davies Hall, (he performed with the San Francisco Symphony in 2014 as a Shenson Young Artist); Trifonov’s reputation has grown considerably in the ensuing three years, largely based on appearances at Carnegie Hall and in Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel and Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the January 9, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross devoted an article to Daniil Trifonov in which Ross stated that, “What sets Trifonov apart is a pair of attributes that are seldom found in one pianist: monstrous technique and lustrous tone.” Ross also quoted no less an authority than Argentine pianist Marta Argerich as saying of Trifonov, “What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It’s also his touch -- he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.” 

Coming with such strong recommendations, Trifonov did not disappoint. Here is a pianist who combines awesome technique, formidable power, gorgeous tone, incredible delicacy, and acute sensitivity. To be sure, the highlight of Trifonov’s January 9 recital here was his consummate rendition of two major works by Chopin – the Variations in B-flat Major on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano,” Opus 2, and Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 35. These works were performed in the recital’s second half, while the first half was devoted to a potpourri of works by various composers influenced by Chopin.  

I use the term ‘potpourri’ advisedly, for inexplicably – and unfortunately –Trifonov ran many of the works together in this half of the program. Thus, only the first piece heard – Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (1957) – and the last piece heard – Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (1902) – stood out. Otherwise, one hardly knew when a piece by Schumann ended and one by Grieg began, or when Trifonov was playing Samuel Barber. When the pianist refuses to pause and acknowledge applause between one work and another, audiences can get lost. Even Tchaikovsky’s Un poco di Chopin, from Eighteen Pieces, tended to get buried in the shuffle. 

I personally found the opening work by Mompou delightful, though my seat-mate found it boring. Mompou, a Spanish composer who worked in Paris, based this set of Variations on Chopin’s familiar A Major prelude (Opus 28,no. 7). Mompou’s work also contains in the tenth variation a quotation from another well-loved Chopin piece, the Fantasie-Impromptu, Opus 60. As for the Rachmaninoff set of Variations, it was full of interesting turns, brilliant melodies, and chords sounding like the tolling of bells. Daniil Trifonov was perhaps at his best in this expansive work by Rachmaninoff. 

After intermission came the works by Chopin himself. His Variations in B-flat Major on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” is a wonderfully inventive set of variations on that seductively simple melody. In this piece, Trifonov elegantly shifted gears from a delicate passage one moment to a thunderous passage requiring dazzling technique in the next moment. The word demonic comes to mind in Trifonov’s mastery of this piece associated with Mozart’s demonic Don Giovanni. The final item on this recital program was Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor (Opus 35). This work is most famous for the Marche funèbre, which Trifonov played with great solemnity. The Finale, marked Presto, was in Trifonov’s hands a whirlwind of energy, and it too had a hint of the demonic in it. To his utmost credit, Trifonov’s demonic element is all in the playing, not in any mannerisms or histrionics, and in this all-important respect Trifonov differs greatly from an earlier wunderkind pianist, Ivo Pogorelich. With Trifonov, happily, it’s all in the music and in its precise yet inspired execution.  

Daniil Trifonov will return to Davies Hall twice more in the 2017-18 season. On February 27 Trifonov will be joined by his teacher, Sergei Babayon, in a recital program for two pianos; and on June 22-24 Trifonov will join the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.