Trifonov triumphs in downtown debut recital

Daniil Trifonov
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

If the United States can send some of its finest Olympians to Russia this winter, it seems only sporting that one of Russia’s own champions – musical champions, that is – should be displaying his mettle on our shores at the same time.

The young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov had demonstrated a leonine command of the keyboard along with remarkably mature musical insights at his CSO debut in 2012. A just-released Deutsche Grammophon live recording of a recital he gave at Carnegie Hall last February adds luster to the impressions one took away from that concert.

So expectations ran high before Trifonov’s Orchestra Hall recital debut on Sunday afternoon. And the 22-year-old winner of the 2011 Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions did not disappoint.

The pianist went from strength to strength in a program that began with neoclassical Stravinsky (the 1925 Serenade) and explored miniatures of Debussy and Ravel before savoring the richly romantic half-tints and emotional interiors of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13.

Trifonov’s Stravinsky was marked by whistle-clean textures, coiled-spring attacks and rhythms that retained their sharp outlines even when notes issued in a torrent from his seemingly infallible fingers.

A group of six Debussy and Ravel pieces was distinguished by two evocations of water, Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” and Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean.” Each spray of notes took on a pellucid radiance, while Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” luxuriated in colors to rival those of the familiar orchestral transcription, the Spanish rhythms incisively etched.

During intermission Trifonov switched from an American Steinway piano to a German Steinway, reportedly because he felt the latter would better suit Schumann’s music. The brilliant yet warm and well-balanced sound he produced for this technically formidable series of variations seemed to justify the change of instruments.

Trifonov adhered to the now-common practice of inserting variations into Schumann’s original sequence that were published after the composer’s death. This touchstone romantic work evinced a sovereign technical command, suppleness of line and unusually wide range of moods and colors that kept the listener engrossed in the interpretation rather than casting any showy light on the interpreter.

Any pianist who chooses to deliberate as lovingly as Trifonov did over the posthumous variations Nos. 4 and 5 would risk becalming the interpretation. But Trifonov made these reflective pieces just the lyrical resting-place that was needed before the eruptive brilliance of the final four etudes swept the music to a triumphant conclusion.

He acknowledged the audience’s roar of applause with multiple bows and four encores: Chopin’s Preludes Nos. 17 (A flat) and 16 (B flat minor); Medtner’s “Fairy Tale” in B flat minor; and the vivacious Scherzo from his own Piano Sonata. Perhaps Trifonov will play the entire piece next time the CSO invites him back, which I hope will be soon.