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Daniil Trifonov, Anguished Soul

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Chopin, Preludes, op. 28, G. Sokolov


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Scriabin, Piano Sonatas, M.-A. Hamelin
In the calculated pursuit of technical perfection, a virtuoso can lose that most exciting musical quality, the adventurous taking of risks. This was one of the things that most impressed me hearing Daniil Trifonov play with the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in 2011, in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, with which he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition earlier that year. His technique was astounding, but it was the sense of daring in his playing that stuck with me, that he was willing to play at the edge of security, to push himself over that edge. The same quality stood out in his recital on Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Not all of the performances would be at the top of my list, but with each composer Trifonov smashed expectations, reordered my thinking about the composer and his music, and left one with much to ponder.

The opening work, Scriabin's second sonata (Sonate-fantaisie, op. 19, 1892-97), was the one that seemed likely to be the best match for Trifonov's temperament. Scriabin was staying in Genoa and the Crimea while working on it, and the sounds and feel of the ocean waves are what drive the piece. According to his letters, he reworked it many times, settling on a two-movement form: a slow introduction (supposedly a moonlit southern sea) followed by a turbulent Presto (the ocean roiling with agitated waves). He packed exceptional beauty into just the introduction, taking care to craft and shape each sound, layering voicing upon voicing to give a sense of depth to the oceanic texture. In the first movement, the moonlight sections are cast in the key of E major, which the synesthete Scriabin saw as a light blue or sea blue color (Rimsky-Korsakov, who also confused colors and sounds, often used the same key for his seascapes), given a transparent, gleaming finish by Trifonov. His take on the second movement was breathtakingly fast, a storm-tossed tea that seethed with movement. Anatole Leikin's study of the piano rolls that Scriabin made of this piece indicates that Scriabin took broad liberties with the tempo in both movements, especially the first, taking the second faster than the tempo he marked and emphasizing the right-hand material over the left-hand octaves, even distorting the rhythms he marked to enhance the sense of agitation. Much of that, intentional or no, seemed reflected in Trifonov's performance.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, At Kennedy Center, Daniil Trifonov proves himself an heir to Liszt (Washington Post, January 21)

Marie-Aude Roux, La fascinante maturité de Daniil Trifonov, jeune prodige russe (Le Monde, January 11)
Liszt's B minor piano sonata is overplayed, but one is always thrilled by the occasional mind-blowing performance. Scholar Alan Walker has called this singular work, which Liszt composed under the influence of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, a "sonata across a sonata, [in which] the material is constantly making contributions to two sonata forms simultaneously." Liszt often thought in terms of a program, but if this sonata had one, Liszt never specified what it was, although it is an inherently dramatic work. Trifonov opened with an air of mystery, a murky opening with the initial notes of the descending motif made to ring, with the following notes slipping underneath it. When the piece took off, Trifonov raced through it, giving the sense of a soul tormented, wracked by terror, driven toward the exalted major-mode rising theme, played with relieved abandon. The slow passages were lost in rhapsody, with no need to rush through them, as Trifonov explored each whorl and curl of thought, while the fugue, which came out of nowhere, was drenched in sweat. (You can get a sense of what I experienced by watching Trifonov's recital at the Louvre earlier this month, which featured the Liszt sonata, Agosti's arrangement of Stravinsky's Firebird, and Trifonov's own composition, Rachmaniana.)

Trifonov brought many of the same qualities to a complete performance of Chopin's Preludes, op. 28 (search through the list of works to see the first editions of these pieces), playing the shorter pieces impetuously, as if they were not complete thoughts but brief flashes of inspiration. His rubato was free and mercurial, but the extremes of technical accomplishment -- the sparkle of his left hand in no. 3, for example -- were not at the center of the interpretation, and often previously unnoticed details (at least by me) materialized. Three encores were the reward for a rousing ovation: Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung (drenched in emotion); Rachmaninoff's arrangement of a Bach Gavotte, from the third violin partita (odd harmonies mixed with sprightly spring -- see video embedded below); and Agosti's arrangement of the "Danse Infernale" from Stravinsky's Firebird (diabolical mania of orchestral scope).

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