A Virtuoso Pianist Is a Virtuoso Composer, Too

Daniil Trifonov
New York Times

Daniil Trifonov’s Piano Concerto in E-flat Minor, full of Romantic fervor and pulsing lyricism, takes itself very seriously. I actually found the concerto rather endearing when Mr. Trifonov himself played it, brilliantly, on Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall, with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra. That may not be the reaction Mr. Trifonov was hoping for, exactly, but I mean it as a compliment.

The piece was commissioned by the Cleveland Institute of Music, where, after early training in Russia, Mr. Trifonov was once a student. (He played the premiere at the school in 2014, when he was 23.) Given such an opportunity, many aspiring composers would have set about writing a fiercely original piece.

Mr. Trifonov chose instead to honor the heritage of Russian composer-pianists, especially Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. His concerto basks in their music; elements of their styles come through unabashedly. So does Mr. Trifonov’s love for and understanding of these figures he reveres. That earnestness is what makes his concerto so lovable.

The musical language, though thick with chromatic harmony and spiked with dissonance, is unapologetically tonal. Within his chosen style, though, Mr. Trifonov demonstrates undeniable skills as a composer. Recurring motifs bring structural cohesion to a 32-minute, three-movement score that on the surface sounds impetuous and mercurial.

The first movement begins with mysterious orchestral stirrings and hints of motifs to come. The piano enters with a restless theme in thick chords played over tumultuous bursts of jagged arpeggios. Rachmaninoff is the model here. Mr. Trifonov’s youthful impatience is already apparent: This first entrance is so heated, it sounds like a climactic later treatment of the theme has jumped in too soon.

Yet the nonstop urgency of the music hooks you, even as episodes come and go. The piano breaks into dizzying spirals of runs one moment, then coaxes the orchestra into dreamy reverie the next. After gremlins lurk about in low strings and reedy woodwinds, the movement shifts into a manic Allegro, during which phrases fracture into shards and bits. At one point, what could be a stirring Russian folk song emerges, scored with cinematic lushness in the orchestra.

In the beguiling second movement, a kind of intermezzo, a wistful clarinet plays over swaying strings. The piano enshrouds the melody with milky passagework, as the harmonic language, increasingly unmoored, nods to Scriabin. Prokofiev, in his percussive, sarcastic mode, permeates the finale, which hurtles along like a madcap dance. During one waltzing interlude, a devilish solo violin seems to provoke the jittery piano, which unleashes a hellbent cadenza full of fiendish runs, keyboard-sweeping glissandos and full-hand cluster chords.
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