A Russian Pianist of Skills and Star Power

Daniil Trifonov
The Wall Street Journal

Russian piano virtuosos remain one of music’s most enduring archetypes. Their feats make certain music lovers swoon for the old days. Today’s exemplars— Evgeny Kissin and Denis Matsuev among them—may exert less power on the collective imagination, but at their best they dazzle audiences with technical prowess and poetic sensitivity. Now comes Daniil Trifonov, who shows every sign not just of upholding this venerated tradition, but also of generating star power rarely enjoyed by today’s classical musicians.

One measure of that is Carnegie Hall’s naming Mr. Trifonov a Perspectives artist, an honor established in 1999 in which lauded musicians explore a range of repertory over several concerts usually within a single season. Among pianists, eminences like Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Mitsuko Uchida have curated such series. But Mr. Trifonov, at just 26 years old, is by far the youngest person tapped for the distinction.

His series of seven concerts, which began late last month and concludes next May, finds him in various roles—as soloist, orchestral collaborator, accompanist, duo-pianist and chamber musician. Tellingly, though, Mr. Trifonov bookends his Perspectives programs with two ambitious solo dates. The first, on Oct. 28, mesmerized the capacity crowd with material from his recent double-disc album “ Chopin Evocations,” in which Mr. Trifonov juxtaposes several popular works by Chopin with music deeply indebted to the composer.

His next appearance comes Wednesday night, when he performs his own Piano Concerto in the second of two concerts given by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. (The bill also includes works by Strauss and Prokofiev without the pianist.)

Mr. Trifonov makes a strange first impression in performance. He does not stride confidently to the keyboard, as one might expect from an artist of his caliber. Instead, he slouches there, almost sullenly, his stringy hair flopping over his eyes. Yet as soon as he begins playing, his pearly tone erases all distractions. At last month’s Carnegie concert, he opened with “Variations on a Theme of Chopin,” a little-known work from 1957 by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou —a gem of a piece in which Chopin’s familiar Prelude in A major (Op. 28, No. 7) gets spun in various directions. But it takes a pianist of Mr. Trifonov’s gifts to keep a full house captivated as he morphs through a range of emotions, spans a vast expanse of dynamics, phrases with wit and point, and executes a range of technical feats that more than occasionally prompt a listener to stifle a “Wow!”

He was born in 1991 to musician parents in Nizhny Novgorod. Recognizing his early talent, they relocated to Moscow, where he remained until 2009, when he moved to Cleveland to study with the pianist Sergei Babayan. He and Mr. Babayan remain close, and they will perform a duo recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in March. Mr. Trifonov’s Piano Concerto, though subsequently refined, was written during his years in Cleveland, when he devoted what little free time he had to composition. Since then, a blur of concert appearances—roughly 130 annually in recent years—and recording dates have focused his attention on performance.
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