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Amazing Grace

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall
10/28/2017 -  
“Perspective Series”: Hommage à Chopin:
Federico Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin
Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Opus 9: “Chopin”
Edvard Grieg: Studie: “Hommage à Chopin”, Opus 73, No. 5
Samuel Barber: Nocturne, Opus 23
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky: Un poco di Chopin, opus 72 No. 15
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Selections from Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22
Frédéric Chopin: Sonata No. 2, Opus 35

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)

F. Chopin by Wodzinska/D. Trifonov (© Dario Acosta)

“Nothing is more meaningless than music without hidden meanings.”
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

“It’s the chromatic nature of his language, always deeply emotional and poetic.
Daniil Trifonov (1991– )

Daniil Trifonov started the Halloween weekend with a festive series of masks atop the body of Frédéric Chopin. He fitted the Polish composer with musical masks from Spain, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia and America, before unveiling the true Frédéric Chopin in all his glory.

For a recital by Daniil Trifonov is never simply music on the stage of Carnegie Hall. It is a revelation, an unveiling, a kind of glory. Last night, whether he played Chopinesque oddities or monumental variations, it was Trifonov who lifted the music far above mere notes.

I once interviewed a famous actor, and asked him for one word which would characterize the great people in his profession. He answered immediately, “Whether you’re speaking of Charles Laughton or Groucho Marx or Ingrid Bergman, it’s the same word: Grace.”

And it was that grace–whether whipping through the Presto whirlwind from Chopin’s Sonata or giving a majestic march in the Rachmaninoff Variations–which makes this young pianist into such a phenomena. Under Trifonov’s hands, that grace could never be confused with mere elegance, with its nuances of class and education. This grace offered the feeling that each note was an elevation, that the phrasings were a kind of devotion.

Mr. Trifonov had arranged the recital with both finesse and originality. It might be daring to begin with the light frothy variations by Federico Mompou and end the first half with the weighty heavily Slavic Rachmaninoff variations. Yet each composer saw Chopin in his own way, and each composer was a fine pianist who could demonstrate his skills.

It was also daring to place four totally unknown bagatelles in the center of this first half. Who knew that Edward Grieg wrote a pyrotechnical homage to Chopin, or that Samuel Barber wrote a nocturne in honor of Chopin’s Irish colleague, John Field? One might not approve of extracting “Chopin” from Schumann’s Carnival, but when Mr. Trifonov played that section one forgot the musical autopsy. It was played with utmost feeling.

Leaving Carnegie Hall, I heard some people raving about Trifonov’s dazzling virtuosity, but that was a foregone conclusion. More essential was the penetration he offered every single piece. In fact, this first half, which could have been some clever tidbits and discoveries, the artist extended himself. Not once, not for a single note, did he say, “Well, this is okay stuff, but I can’t wait to get onto the heavyweights.”

So the opening composer, Federico Mompou, while mainly a composer of songs and chamber music, was seen by Trifonov as a virtuoso who extended Chopin’s A Major Prelude with different tempos, different, ornamentations and a variation for left hand alone. And when that was stretched out, he “evoked” the Fantaisie-Impromptu. All of this played seriously yet with enough emotion.

Mompou’s own playing of the Variations is filled with exaggerated retards which are almost pauses in themselves. Mr. Trifonov didn’t go that far, and he left the best for the furious ending.

His three following pieces, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and a curiously unromantic Barber, were like interludes for the Rachmaninoff Chopin Variations. Played rarely, this an important work if only because of its monumentality. For reasons of his own, Mr. Trifonov eliminated a few of the variations, but those he played on the Chopin C Minor Prelude were filled with passion, obvious virtuosity and–compared to the Mompou Variations–emotionally appealing.

And now we come to the second half, devoted to the real Chopin, his Second Sonata. I confess to having lost critical powers after he launched into a fairly eccentric offbeat first movement. Mainly because Mr. Trifonov carried my own mind through a universe of soft melodies and orchestral tuttis, branching out from a naive second subject to an adventure in exposition, my ears were ready for a lot more. Which included a scherzo which was no joke. It was spellbinding, a plethora of colors and moods.

The Funeral March is akin to “To be or not to be”. How does the artist approach such a simple and familiar piece? Mr. Trifonov did it one note at a time. It was solemn, yes, but so gorgeously did he play each chord, it was like a Cage piece, where each note had to be savored. Until the middle, where the pianist worked the theme like a peasant folk song. That is, a folk song without vibrato, without emotion, an abstract melody, followed by an even more grave funeral march.

It was spellbinding, so mesmeric that the presto finale was not so much a movement as a series of winds and whispers, a quick benediction for the music which came before.

Ever the artist, never the showman, Mr. Trifonov offered only a single encore. And this was a mixture of real Chopin and “arranged” Chopin. His own arrangement of the slow movement from the Cello Sonata.

The good news–the extraordinary news–is that this is not the end. Mr. Trifonov will be performing all this season! His own Concerto, Chopin songs, two-piano arrangements, and more, much more.

All of it, methinks with the temperament, virtuosity and grace of the most luminous artist.

Harry Rolnick



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