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Propulsion? Poetry!

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/09/2019 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Andante in F Major (“Andante favori”), WoO 57 – Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Opus 31, No. 3
Robert Schumann: Bunte Blätter, Opus 99 – Presto passionato in G Minor, Opus 22
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, Opus 84

Daniil Trifonov (Pianist)

D. Trifonov

What a week this has been for star piano players. Beginning with an agonizing choice between Ursula Oppens and Behzod Abduraimov (I chose the latter), heading onto Yuja Wang and Marc-André Hamelin, and finishing last night with Daniil Trifonov. Stars from Australia, Uzbekistan, China, and Canada. A total of ten expert hands, 50 dazzling fingers, 440 vibrating keys, and–thanks to Mr. Trifonov’s expected legerdemain–probably billions of vibrating notes.

The still young Russian pianist no longer has his teenage face, donning beard and mustache. His fingers, if anything, have more quantum speed, which he isn’t afraid to use, even at questionable times. His music might be mid-19th Century, but the choices are unexpected. One can’t say he has the eccentricities of a Glenn Gould, but fathoming his choices is not always easy.

In fact, he started and finished the first half with two pieces which shouldn’t have been performed, and never let the audience into the secrets. Mr. Trifonov started with a graceful Andante which Beethoven himself rejected for his Waldstein, but frequently played as an audience favorite. Last night, though, before the audience realized he was done with this most original work, he darted quickly into the 18th Piano Sonata. He finished that half with a group of miscellanea put together by Robert Schumann, and just as that ended, he whipped into another Schumann work. This one had beehn rejected by Clara Schumann and not played in New York until Vladimir Horowitz (naturally!) played the Presto passionato in 1945, 112 years after it was written.

How did Mr. Trifonov handle the works? The beginning Andante favori began with elegance, ripped into some stunning legato runs on the keyboard (with forgivable errors) and ended, before the Sonata without allowing us to appreciate his sometimes breathless performance.

One could never have guessed that the Beethoven Sonata is such a deliciously amiable work by Mr. Trifonov’s fingers. He played that signal introduction with enough moderation, but then launched into a piece notable more for speed than perfection.

As for the Scherzo, Beethoven must have had too much coffee that day. Who else would describe a work as Allegretto vivace? Mr. Trifonov forgot the “moderately quickly” part and gave a whirling performance that again left one breathless. For this and the finale “hunting” movement, he gave a masterful reading, if one doesn’t mind exaggerated accents, magical octaves and fingers which almost make one believe in miracles.

I didn’t mind it at all. This was not Ashkenazy or Rubinstein or certainly not Schiff. It was...well, Daniil Trifonov.

The Schumann colorful leaves were–like the Beethoven Andante favori and the Schumann Presto passionato–songs, novelettes, marches and lullabies which had never been used before in more formal structures. Mr. Trifonov gave all of them pleasant readings (none were top-rate Schumann), but the Marsch was a revelation. Possibly the longest of all, this March was a pure imitation of Chopin’s “Funeral march” and was played with a Chopin touch.

After the final “speedy march”, Mr. Trifonov never paused, but launched–no, he reeled–into the piece which Clara Schumann refused to play.

“Oh,” she said (sort of), “I could play it if I wanted to. But...er...nobody else will play it later.”

Horowitz played it later, Mr. Trifonov played it like the “presto” was not a direction in music, but the revelation of a magician. The concert was recorded, will be played later, and had to be heard. Gasps were not out of place.

The second half was a total difference. The first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata was planetary leap from the first half. It was pure poetry, it was understated, the notes were caressed, one forgot that Mr. Trifonov resembled a resurrected Horowitz (the latter had also premiered this work in America), that his musical sensibility, when allowed to rise, could soar to a heavenly peak.

The following minuet had a balletic grace, and the finale gave Mr. Trifonov the opportunity to show his diabolical fingers. Yet Prokofiev’s unexpected opening Andante dolce will remain in my memory long after his volatile fingers.

Two rare encores. The second I recognized as an arrangement from the Chopin Cello Sonata. (It was by Alfred Cortot). The I first I hadn’t recognized, but should have realized it was again Prokofiev, from his Sarcasms.

Were this a British cricket match, it would call for “Huzzah” and “Oh, well played.” In this case, stunned silence was the most adequate response.

Harry Rolnick



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