Piano Recital: Daniil Trifonov
Mompou / Schumann / Grieg / Barber / Tchaikovsky / Rachmaninoff / Chopin
KKL Lucerne, 2017-11-24
This was the third appearance of Daniil Trifonov (*1991) at the Lucerne Festival, after his debut in 2012, and his participation this summer, where he played Prokofiev’s second piano concerto as part of a “Prokofiev marathon”, where three pianists played all of Prokofiev’s piano concertos with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev (*1953). To me, this was the first live encounter with the artist. I had watched him perform at the International Chopin Competition 2010 in Warsaw, where he ranked third. It’s an interesting coincidence that merely 3 days earlier (2017-11-21) I attended a duo recital in which the pianist ranking fifth in the same competition was performing—seven years after the competition.
After the Chopin competition, Daniil Trifonov moved on to other competitions, and returned as a winner in the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, 2011. In the same year, he was the winner at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He has since successfully launched an international career, both in concert, as well as in first recordings. In parallel to his career as pianist, Trifonov is also composing..
Trifonov was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia and started learning the piano at age 5. Later, he studied under Tatiana Zelikman at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow. For more information on the artist see Wikipedia.
Trifonov is one of the most hyped pianists of his generation, enjoying a large fan community. It was therefore no surprise to see that the White Hall in the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL) was sold out, and the fans certainly indicated their presence during the applause. And the expectations on this concert were very high, needless to say.
In this concert, Daniil Trifonov presented key parts from his recently released CD set, “Chopin Evocations“. Let me say so much at this point: despite the large fan community that he enjoys, despite the sold-out venue, and with all due respect for the agility of his fingers, the art of his keyboard touch: in my view, Chopin was left behind in this recital.
I found that such a pity, as the day in Lucerne, had started so promisingly, with a persistently outstanding debut recital in the Lukas Church, by the Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, aged 24. Intuitively, the bigger and more festive setup in this concert (and the artist’s huge successes at competitions) made me expect even more.
Some General Remarks
Daniil Trifonov’s appearance on stage was unpretentious and unceremonial. He isn’t the “showman” on the podium. He sat down and started playing almost immediately, and once a piece or section finished, he again got up onto his feet to accept the applause almost immediately after releasing the pedal. No extended silence after the last tone, as some may regretfully state. Maybe he anticipated that his fans would burst out in applause anyway?
While playing, Trifonov sat bowed deeply over the keyboard, as if he was constantly watching his hands from close-up. He seemed to caress the keys with his long fingers. Other observations, so characteristic of his playing: his mellow, refined keyboard touch, and how he generated impulses almost exclusively through fingers and wrist, unless the music required the mobilization of substantial power reserves. In the latter case it did happen that he momentarily bounced off the bench.
I. Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin
In his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, the Spanish (Catalan) composer and pianist Federico Mompou (1893 – 1987) varied a theme by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), namely the Prélude No.7 in A major, from the 24 Préludes, op.28. The variations were composed over a span of 19 years, between 1938 and 1957. The annotations for the 12 variations are as follows:
- Theme: Andantino
- Tranquillo e molto amabile
- Lento (for the left hand)
- Tempo di Mazurka
- Allegro leggiero
- Andante dolce e espressivo
- Évocation. Cantabile molto espressivo
- Lento dolce e legato
- Galope y Epílogo
Chopin’s Prélude is one of the shortest in the composer’s op.28: a little Intermezzo of 16 bars, forming 8 rhythmically identical periods of two bars each (which again could be grouped into two pairs of two periods each, forming two phrases). In the context of Chopin’s 24 Préludes, this little piece definitely has its value and function. However, I don’t think that with its symmetry and internal periodicity it is the ideal basis for a set of variations.
Impression on the Listener
In most of the variations, Mompou leaves either the motivic / melodic and/or the harmonic intact of clearly shine through—such that at the end of the twelve variations the listener probably has “heard enough of it”. It would be a pity if with these variations Chopin’s little piece degenerated to an ear-worm. Apart from that effect (or danger), the recurring motif and the rhythmic structure rapidly creates a certain monotony, the feeling of shallowness—despite Mompou’s added rhythmic, harmonic and melodic components / ingredients. The variations are rarely performed, so I don’t have the means to compare with other interpretations. But I primarily think that the composition has its limitations, rather than blaming these impressions on the artist.
Not all of the variations are equally “flat” / shallow, but to me, most of them are rather harmless, don’t offer much in terms of musical content. I’m a bit clueless as to what links the jumping variation 5 to a Mazurka—I suspect one needs to be Polish to have a true “sense of Mazurka“. Variation 6 is a mixture of recitative and elegiac singing; variation 7 (Allegro leggiero) animates the scene with its virtuosic, glittering figures. I found the subsequent Andante dolce e espressivo to be interesting as a composition—up to the point where the original theme reappears as a quote.
In general, I found the variations to be better / more interesting, the more they moved away from the original theme—e.g., variation 10 (Évocation. Cantabile molto espressivo). The highlight of these variations was the final “Galope y Epílogo“: more complex and virtuosic than the rest, with a big gesture: only here, Mompou shows real qualities as an autonomous composer.
II. Schumann — Grieg — Barber — Tchaikovsky
In the second segment of the concert, Daniil Trifonov played small compositions by four composers (three were around 2 minutes each, Barber’s Nocturne is 5 minutes). He chained them up in two pairs, each played attacca. It all sounded and felt like a short piano sonata with four movements.
This procedure is technically OK, at least for listeners who are familiar with the pieces. As the actual chaining was not marked in the program overview, some listeners got confused about which of the pieces they were currently listening to. But this is the least of the issues here, I think.
I see no gain in concocting four compositions by different composers to a single “sonata”—unless this is declared Trifonov’s own recomposition or arrangement. In addition, the three short pieces (the exception being Barber’s Nocturne) were taken out of their original, bigger context, which by itself is questionable and does not add value to the resulting “snippets”. The lack of context alone deprecates these fragments—all are gems of the piano literature in their respective context. The extraction actually makes them look like fragments. Such a selection may be OK as an encore, but that is an exception, really (and encores are often not taken for full value performances).
Schumann: Carnaval, op.9 — 12. “Chopin”
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) composed his Carnaval, op.9 1834 – 1835, calling it Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (Little Scenes on Four Notes)—21 short pieces depicting masked figures. No.12. is named “Chopin”—a mere 14 bars with a repeat.
Grieg: Moods (Stemninger), op.73 — 5. Study in F minor, “Hommage à Chopin”
In his op.73, “Moods”, Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907) collected 7 pieces depicting a variety of moods / atmospheres—little character pieces:
- Night Ride
- Folk Song
- Study (Hommage à Chopin)
- Students’ Serenade
- The Mountaineer’s Song
From this, Daniil Trifonov picked the No.5, a study in F minor, an Allegro agitato in 12/16 time, a virtuosic Ballade. with a rapid line of semiquavers that is rarely ever interrupted, momentarily.
Barber: Nocturne “Homage to John Field”, op.33
The general theme of Trifonov’s recital was “Chopin”, to which the composition by Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) is only linked indirectly: Chopin admired the composer John Field (1782 – 1837), who is seen as the inventor of the genre Nocturne. In that sense, the inclusion of Barber’s Nocturne “Homage to John Field”, op.33, obviously written in the style of John Field, certainly made sense. It’s a dreamy fantasy, the longest of the pieces in this small set of pieces, in my impression starting with memories, followed by a more earnest, “cloudy” segment, building up to a rhapsodic climax, then dying off into the void.
Tchaikovsky: 18 Pieces for Piano, op.72 — 15. Un Poco di Chopin
In his 18 Pieces for Piano, op.72, Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) included a Tempo di Mazurka, Nr.15, with the title “Un poco di Chopin“. Tchaikovsky matched the character of a Mazurka really well (much better than Mompou, I should say).
As a composition, Schumann’s “Chopin” seemed far above Mompou’s variations, even though it’s not very long (26.5 bars, 13 of which are a repeat). As for the interpretation: the piece is annotated Agitato—which I hardly found in Trifonov’s performance: he rather played this as Andantino, giving the piece a lyrical, mysterious (rather than agitated) atmosphere. I suspect that he wanted this to be the “slow introduction” to his little “Sonata”.
Grieg: Study in F minor, “Hommage à Chopin”
In this “Second movement”, the artist demonstrated pianistic artistry: a virtuosic Allegro agitato full of smooth passagework—which certainly is one of Trifonov’s strengths.
Barber: Nocturne “Homage to John Field”
Another area where Trifonov is really strong is his ability to control his touch, to use seamless dynamics to shape big arches—exemplary in this Nocturne.
Tchaikovsky: Un Poco di Chopin
Tchaikovsky’s “Russian view on Chopin” gave Trifonov a chance to demonstrate his agility, elegance in smooth passagework, strong, expressive agogics. The piece has both gentle lyricism, as well as virtuosic segments.
I have given my comment on the idea of composing a “Sonata” from a variety of small—albeit all precious—pieces by different composers above.
III. Rachmaninoff: 22 Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op.22
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) composed his 22 Variations on a Theme of Chopin, op.22 (!) around 1902 – 1903.
The theme is again from Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op.28, this time Prélude No.20 in C minor, a Largo of a mere 13 bars. One might ask whether Rachmaninoff runs into the same issues as (later) Mompou in his variations, particularly, as 12 of the bars in the theme have identical rhythmic structure. Yes, it has the potential of “getting stuck in one’s mind”. However, the theme is distinctly richer in harmony, and it forms a single phrase. Plus, Rachmaninoff uses a vastly larger spectrum of variation techniques. Hence, as a composition alone, there is much more in these variations (even discounting the larger number of variations). The 22 variations are annotated as follows:
- Theme: Largo, 4/4
- Moderato [1/4 = 66]
- Allegro [1/4 = 132]
- [1/4 = 132]
- [1/4 = 132]
- Meno mosso [1/4 = 92]
- Meno mosso [1/4 = 84]
- Allegro [1/4 = 120] (*)
- [1/4 = 120]
- [1/4 = 120]
- Più vivo [1/4 = 144] (*)
- Lento [1/4 = 44]
- Moderato [1/4 = 60] (*)
- Largo [1/4 = 52]
- Moderato [1/4 = 72]
- Allegro scherzando [3/8 = 132]
- Lento [1/4 = 54]
- Grave [1/4 = 46]
- Più mosso
- Allegro vivace
- Presto [3/4 = 924]
- Andante [3/8 = 60] — Più vivo
- Maestoso [1/4 = 100] — Meno mosso — Presto (*)
The first edition mentioned that the variations 7, 10, and 12 and the final Presto (19 bars, last page in the score), all marked with (*) above, may be omitted.
A Look at the Composition
Rachmaninoff’s Chopin Variations were the (one) highlight of the evening—not the actual Chopin piece itself, see below. A major contributor to this was the composer: already with the first variations it was clear that Rachmaninoff used a far wider scope in varying the theme. He largely retained the harmonic structure, but avoided perpetuating the melodic rhythmic structure. He did return to the theme from time to time, but mostly just worked with the harmonic foundation, typically with a rhythmic or melodic fragment of the original theme. This way, Rachmaninoff created a masterwork while carefully avoiding trashing Chopin’s Prélude.
The wide-spanning range of techniques and textures allowed Daniil Trifonov to demonstrate his technical, pianistic skills, such as the big gestures, his virtuosity, both in agility, as well as in dense chordal textures. This is his world, as he could expose his extraordinary culture and skills in keyboard touch and dynamic control in filigreed passagework, down into the faintest ppp, and in spanning large, harmonious arches. Some highlights in a sketchy description, covering both the music and the performance, as experienced in this concert:
The theme seemed on the slow, grave side. However, the notation (by Chopin) is in 4/4, so Trifonov’s reading here is correct. Many artists read this rather as alla breve, making the crotchet pace sound rather like a slow, measured Andante.
Variations 1 – 12 (Rachmaninoff / Trifonov)
- 1 – 3: already here, the theme is disguised in intricate melody lines, in semiquavers: first in the right hand, then in the left, then in both hands. Trifonov only hints at Rachmaninoff’s dynamic annotations (crescendo and decrescendo forks).
- 4: the first three variations serve as a rapid build-up to the first highlight, with its wide-spanning, virtuosic left hand (so typical of Rachmaninoff), the right hand using a simple chordal motif to follow the harmonies of the theme.
- 5: flowing filigree in the right hand
- 6: Trifonov leaves enough rhythmic freedom to make the 6 (right) vs. 9 (left hand) metric scheme appear independent. The variation sounds easy, but definitely isn’t!
- 7 – 10: The artist used the rapid passagework in variations 7 and 8 to build up towards the grandiose jumping, “full-handed” chords of Variation 9, leading into the very virtuosic variation 10.
- (11,) 12: From variation 10, Trifonov directly skipped to the second half of variation 12 (parallel thirds), which he converted from a moderato to virtuosic firework, too fast, and all ff (the score has a crescendo from pp). Only at the ff climax, the pianist returns to the composer’s tempo and notation, with decrescendo to pp.
Variations 13 – 22 (Rachmaninoff / Trifonov)
- 13 – 14: these are at a calmer pace, with an impressive build-up in the second half of variation 14
- 15: with his tendency to blur, Trifonov not only weakened the staccato / scherzando effect, but also largely washed out the difference between triplet and punctuated quaver motifs.
- 16: a calm melody line over an almost breathy semiquaver accompaniment. Good dynamic control and differentiation between the two hands.
- 17: an expressive grave, perhaps with a bit too much sustain pedal? The pianist skipped variations 18 and 19.
- (18, 19) 20: from 17, Trifonov directly jumped to the glittering semiquaver passage work of variation 20, which suited his abilities well.
- 21, 22: a tricky variation, with its regular quaver sextuplets in the left hand, accompanying semiquaver quintuplets and quadruplets. This is not meant to be rhythmically precise. This again suits Trifonov’s rhythmically flexible interpretation. The più vivo part is a transition to the last variation, a build-up from ghastly murmuring to the Maestoso of the last variation, an artist’s grandiose showpiece that leads into the original theme as thundering fortissimo. A very virtuosic Coda follows, which after the impressive climax fades away into silence.
As mentioned, Rachmaninoff ends with a fulminant Presto (from p to ff) that he declared optional in the first edition. That is the one omission that followed the composer’s proposal. Instead, Daniil Trifonov repeated Chopin’s original theme, but building up from p. I’m not sure this was the composer’s intent. In my opinion, the pp ending of the Meno mosso part would have been a perfectly adequate closure?
It definitely was a pianistically impressive performance. However, I had hoped that the artist would leave the work of his compatriot composer alone—or intact, if you want.
Views from the fourth gallery in the White Hall of the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL):
IV. Chopin: Piano Sonata No 2 in B♭ minor, op.35
The final piece in the program—the segment after the intermission—was the Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.35 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). That composition is well-known, so I’m just giving the movement structure:
- Grave, 2/2 — Doppio movimento
- Scherzo, 3/4— Più lento — Tempo I — Lento
- Marche funèbre, 4/4
- Presto (sotto voce e legato), 2/2
To me, the Chopin sonata was a low blow. I have never heard such a distorted performance of this masterpiece:
I. Grave — Doppio movimento
In general, Trifonov’s fast movements appear really fast. Already the doppio movimento was breathless, feverish, with a tendency towards rhythmic blurring. I also felt a lack of motivic expression: at the small-scale dynamic annotations were often simply ignored (or inaudible).The “grand scheme”, the large dynamic arches, the big gestures are certainly fine and the artist’s strength. But Chopin is more than rhapsodic playing, large-scale dynamic schemes, and pianistic artistry tailored to the modern concert grand. We heard a fairly unilateral view of Chopin’s impressive piece.
Trifonov decided not to include the initial Grave bars in the repeat of the exposition.
II. Scherzo — Più lento — Tempo I — Lento
This was certainly virtuosic—but too smooth, lacking local expression (at the level of motifs). Careful, well-controlled (large-scale) dynamics, good legato playing in the middle part, but superficial in the details.
III. Marche funèbre
To me, the funeral march was pretty much of a disaster: way too slow and static. The pianist celebrated the piece so slowly that the character of a march was imperceptible, and even at that tempo, the punctuations were softened to triplets. There was (once more) no expression at the level of motifs, leaving just the big arch (as impressive as this may be). After the climax (ff), and a moderate decrescendo to f, the score has two bars marked p. Trifonov converted that to a heavy, pounding ff.
The middle part, normally a truly serene window into a world beyond, or a very touching memory of a lucid, happy past, was equally static, stagnant, even slowed down considerably. I found that close to unbearable. The beautiful melody line was stretched beyond recognition.
In Chopin’s score, the march returns p, approaching only gradually. In Trifonov’s interpretation, the march broke in from where it left, at a heavy ff. And at the original, glacial pace, of course. And also further on, Chopin’s dynamic annotations are largely ignored: where the composer reaches f (from the initial p in the score), we heard ff or fff, and in turn, Chopin’s real climax (ascending punctuations in ff), Trifonov is at p, on the way to a pp ending. What is this, other than self-presentation and arbitrariness?
IV. Presto (sotto voce e legato)
Chopin wrote one pedal instruction only in the very last bar. For the rest, there is no pedaling in the score, and the only annotation (other than phrasing arches in the last 8 bars) are presto, sotto voce e legato, and one crescendo fork in bars 13 and 14. To me, there is no doubt that the composer wanted this legato (and very fast), but without pedal. And with exception of the one crescendo and the sudden ff in the last bar, that ghastly movement ought to be played sotto voce.
In Trifonov’s interpretation this music wasn’t ghastly, nor sotto voce: the only annotation that he observed was Presto. Yes, it was fast, but completely blurred, with pedaling throughout, which certainly made it sound fast (faster than it actually was). Trifonov was creating the impression of a hurricane, or at least a strong, stormy wind blowing forcefully and relentlessly. One could see this as an interesting piece of piano music. But to me, it wasn’t Chopin.
I could go beyond the above in stating that only playing this without constant pedaling reveals the true challenge in this movement. And it can be done with Chopin’s original pedaling (or at least with only very occasional use of the sustain pedal), as numerous other pianists have shown (I don’t need to mention names here).
Daniil Trifonov’s arbitrary approach to the treasures of piano literature was disappointing. Is this an expression of “anything goes” in an upcoming generation?? I really hope not. It’s a real pity. Luckily, there are plenty of artists who make a serious effort at seeking and trying to express the intent of the great composers.
If a concert program states “Chopin” or “Rachmaninoff”, that’s what I expect to hear. That said, if the program read “Trifonov’s arrangement / recomposition, etc. of…”, then I might have called this an impressive performance. But the way it was presented, the recital left me disconcerted. The fan community applauded strongly anyway.
In the morning of that day, the sun of a golden late autumn day had illuminated Beatrice Rana’s excellent recital. At the time of this recital, however, dark clouds announced the arrival of a cold front. To me, this somehow seemed to be in agreement with the course of the day in the two piano recitals.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.