A historic performance by Daniil Trifonov at Laeiszhalle

Daniil Trifonov
Hamburg Abendblatt

This review has been translated from German. 

Playing the piano: Come to think of it, the notion itself is intimidatingly grandiose and trivial at the same time. For playing the piano, ideally, means the ability to do with a toy whatever one sees fit. To be relaxed and at peace and not to care the least bit about anything in the world but this one moment. And all of a sudden the grand piano, this merciless monster, this silently rumbling key-pressing machine made of wood, metal, and felt, becomes an integral part of one’s own body as it breathes and feels and thinks together with the player. That moment, when Daniil Trifonov made it clear that playing the piano must achieve what it almost never can achieve and must happen in the flow – that moment at Laeiszhalle Concert Hall lasted for almost two hours.

The critic’s mind wants to think in historic dimensions when thinking of such exceptional performances. For almost precisely ninety years ago, in January 1926, another young Russian, by a year younger then than Trifonov today, took the very same stage and did his magic and said afterwards: ‘In Hamburg they loved me from the very first note.’ Horowitz was the name. The Horowitz. 

It is this far back in history one has to go to understand what it means when someone like Trifonov returns to this of all stages, takes his seat at the piano and achieves more with one had, just five fingers, than others even had they brought four instead of two hands. Trifonov played the Brahms version of the Bach Chaconne, originally built for the violin, hands down – literally hands down, with his left only. When something like this happens, music turns into architecture and structure becomes audible. D minor, for centuries the key for the deepest abysses, one that Trifonov gave an entire sound character of its own, dark, almost obfuscatory, by no means prepared for a good end arrangement with destiny. A piece barely to get to grips with, so extreme is its inner pressure. Five fingers were all one could see, the other hand holding the grand piano time and again, possibly to stop it from lifting off the stage. And yet, here one witnessed someone building a hermit’s world out of nothing and few keys, a world cleared of all what is unnecessary. And in the front left of the dark parquet, this night, there sat, Yoda-like, the legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, 92 years old, almost four times the age of Trifonov. Not the worst of all omens, one would think.

This concert program by Trifonov, extended at short notice and newly ordered in a meaningful sequence, was not just an exhibition of technical capabilities that could have other pianists loose all hope and run off to the next-best occupational retraining program. It was a sequence of variations on the theme of virtuosity in the spotlight as such. It began with Bach’s purity law of this-is-exactly-how-it’s-to-be and ended with Rachmaninoff’s demand to go all in, with undamped subjectivity, and to let oneself go in rubati and the time holes of this exuberant music. 

If Trifonov were a simpler mind when programming a piano recital, he would probably have opened with the hit of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes, which here now are presented only after the intermission. Infernally difficult, heavenly beautiful if presented successfully, and if the fingers do not get fastened with knots or outright broken. But Trifonov promenaded through the half-dozen or so maximal difficulties as if these were cute precursors to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Again and again he bent down deeply towards the keyboard, to have a very good look at what was going on there, bending the spinal disks to breaking point. Or maybe he was counting his fingers—were there still only ten? Who knows? He produced tremolos and double octaves and festoons of notes in the most glorious fashion, worlds apart from any manual challenges and with an infinitely graded spectrum of tone colors. And that little top note sparkling out of the abundance of notes of La Campanella as a tiny porcelaine bell came out just perfect, effortless, every damn time. 

That piece of music that Trifonov cannot play is yet to be composed it seems. At the very end, back to the here and now, he stood in the limelight as if just pulled out of the water, acclaimed. Nostalgics are welcome to have their tickets enframed.  

Read the original review here