An Intriguing but Not Wholly Fulfilling Recital from Daniil Trifonov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach/Liszt, Rachmaninov, Liszt Daniil Trifonov (piano) Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.9.2014 (CC)

Bach/Liszt                   Fantasia and Fugue in G-Minor, BWV542
Rachmaninov             Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22
Liszt                            12 Études d’exécution transcendente, S139


Serial competition winner Daniil Trifonov has impressed previously both on disc and in performance (in particular a Proms performance of Glazunov’s Second Piano Concerto in 2013 but also a Wigmore 2012 recital). Still remarkably young, this was his Festival Hall debut, if not his International Piano Series one – not only that, he was kicking off the 2014/15 International Piano Series at the South Bank. The audience turn-out meant it was far from a sell-out, but there were certainly fans aplenty, given the enthusiasm of the final standing ovation.

The first surprise, though was the programme change – doubly so for this critic, who was safely ensconced in his seat without any inkling that we were not going to hear Beethoven’s last sonata this particular evening. Spying an insert that others somehow had obtained was the clue – the replacement was some early Rachmaninov. Apparently, following recent performances, Trifonov felt that these Rachmaninov Variations have real connections with the Bach/Liszt, and so it was that the two pieces were played through without a break. But was I alone in mourning the mighty Op. 111? The severity of the opening of the sonata surely would have thundered all the more after the cathedral-like fugue of BWV542.

The Bach/Liszt itself was a tremendous performance, the Fantasia full of drama, the Fugue expertly and beautifully sculpted. Trifonov’s sound was miraculously burnished – he plays a Fazioli – yet could carry steel when necessary.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 22 (the theme being Chopin’s C-Minor Prelude) does not share the popularity of the Corelli or Paganini variations. Lasting around half-an-hour, it reminds us that brevity was not always Rachmaninov’s forte. Rachmaninov groups the variations to project a formal sonata outline. The piece includes references to Rachmaninov’s favourite Dies Irae chant, conjuring forth some of Trifonov’s darkest sonorities. The performance as a whole was remarkably variegated: technical difficulties seemed to mean nothing, but Trifonov’s clear belief in the score clearly did. Perhaps not even he can save the piece from accusations of longueur, but the feeling of tangible triumph in the work’s final stages made it all worthwhile.

The performance of the Liszt Études was in some ways the second surprise, for it provided evidence that Trifonov was human. He evidently threw caution to the wind, which resulted in quite a few approximations in the earlier Études. His approach could be refreshingly gestural (the opening ‘Preludio’, ‘Eroica’), remarkably delicate (‘Paysage’), beautiful (‘Ricordanza’), quirky (‘Mazeppa’) or flighty (‘Feux follets’). There was certainly a feeling that Trifonov found his centre and hit his stride in the unbuttoned ‘Wilde Jagd’, after which there was plenty of edge-of-the-seat pyrotechnics. Yet one hankered for a Lisztian of the stature of Lazar Berman – and maybe in the ensuing years that is what we might get from Trifonov. As it was, there was plenty to enjoy, luxuriate in and simply be amazed by.

There was but one encore – Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ from Images. Here was the other side of Trifonov, perhaps; a more feminine, watery side. But it is in the big pieces he has made his name, and for the moment will continue to do so.

An intriguing evening, certainly, but not as fulfilling as perhaps one might have expected.

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment