Daniil Trifonov expands his repertoire once again

Dario Acosta

Note: Due to an elbow injury, Daniil Trifonov has postponed his Nov. 12 recital, part of a multi-city U.S. tour. A new date of Feb. 5 has been announced, and tickets for Nov. 12 will be honored for the rescheduled concert. Flexible options, including exchanging tickets for other concerts, are also available. More information is available at cso.org or by calling Symphony Center Patron Services at (312) 294-3000.

Few if any pianists have earned the kind of accolades that Daniil Trifonov has garnered in the last decade, especially considering that he is just 30 years old. In 2016, he was named Gramophone magazine’s artist of the year, and then three years later, he won the same distinction from Musical America. Those two high-profile honors have followed a series of major recording prizes, including a Grammy Award in 2018 for "Transcendental," his solo Liszt release.

Alongside such awards are rapturous reviews from top critics around the world. In September, for example, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of the Russian pianist after he joined the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4: “As we have come to expect from this remarkable artist, he played magnificently — by turns daring and sensitive, impassioned and poetic.”

Trifonov returns to Orchestra Hall as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano series, presenting a four-selection recital program that he unveiled last summer in Italy and France. In assembling this latest program, he began with Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a work that he had long wanted to learn. Then he became fascinated with a recording of early 20th-century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Sonata No. 3, Op. 36, by Sviatoslav Richter, a celebrated Soviet pianist, and added that to the lineup. Trifonov calls it his favorite of the composer’s three piano sonatas, praising it for its “very unique sound world” and “exhilarating fugue.” He rounds out the program with Debussy’s Pour le Piano and Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op. 17.

One theme is what Trifonov calls “statements of composers still in their youth.” All the works, excluding Szymanowski’s sonata, were written early in their composer’s careers, such as Sarcasms, which Prokofiev composed in 1912-14 when he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Trifonov originally had Carl Maria von Weber’s Sonata No. 1 in place of Sarcasms, but he decided to make the switch after the first performances. No matter how often one practices a program, he said, it’s impossible to know how it will work until it is put before the public.

Born in Nizhny Novgorod, he began piano lessons at age 5 and made his professional debut three years later. He went on to study with Tatiana Zelikman at Moscow’s famous Gnessin School of Music and ultimately completed his education in the United States with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He had already gained awards in some earlier contests, but he catapulted to almost instant stardom in 2011 when he won first prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv and then took top honors just weeks later at the even more prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Two months later, he punctuated his victories with his Carnegie Hall debut with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra.

Trifonov has regularly played big, showy works by the likes of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, but he has never felt hemmed in by the big, muscular stereotypes that sometimes surround Russian keyboardists. His repertoire is expansive, as evidenced by his latest recording, "Bach: The Art of Life," which was released in October on Deutsche Grammophon. It includes J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, as well as works by four of his sons and two pieces that were known to be Bach family favorites.

Before the coronavirus shutdown, Trifonov presented a recital program that included some of the works that would ultimately appear on the album. “I was, of course, supposed to play it many more times, but everything was suspended, so I had time to delve even more into this music,” he said. He found himself being pushed “deeper and deeper into the music,” sometimes practicing as much as eight hours a day. “There is so much clarity in the music and so much harmony," he said. "The mind does not get tired while practicing.”

In addition, Trifonov posited that perhaps Bach’s music operates along the lines of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which holds that gravity can influence the sense of time and space. “Maybe this music has so much magnetism on its own that for the person who is studying it or listening to it; it feels like the time is passing slower than it really is,” he said.

The latest concerto that the pianist has added to his repertoire is Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which the composer premiered in 1858. This fall, Trifonov is performing it with orchestras all over, including the Philharmonia Zürich, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Roma. Trifonov is also learning a new concerto written for him by Mason Bates, who served as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence from 2010 to 2015. He will debut it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January and then perform later with the San Francisco Symphony in June. “I’m very excited about it,” he said.

If all that wasn’t enough, Trifonov is also learning a concerto by little-known Russian composer Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973), who served in World War I and received a medical discharge because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1925, but ran afoul of Soviet authorities in the 1930s, getting a prison sentence shortened only through the intervention of some prominent fellow composers. Trifonov calls the composer’s virtually unknown concerto a “bit of a curiosity”: “It’s quite an original work, and it’s almost never played.”

Like nearly every other classical artist, Trifonov lost 70-80 percent of his engagements during the pandemic, so he used his suddenly free days to spend more time with his family, learn new music and play through Chopin mazurkas and Mozart sonatas just for fun. “It’s something that I found to be one of the good things about the pandemic — that I could just concentrate on something that I didn’t have to play soon or even plan on learning any time soon.”

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