Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan; Pupil and Teacher form a World-Class Partnership

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov: Daniil Trifonov (piano), Sergei Babayan (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 14.2.2016 (RB)

Schumann –  Andante and Variations for two pianos, Op 46
Schubert – Fantasie in F Minor for piano duet, D940
Brahms –  5 Hungarian Dances for piano duet
Rachmaninov – Suite No. 1 ‘Fantasie-tableaux’ for two pianos, Op 5
Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op 17

Since winning the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions in 2010/11, Daniil Trifonov has gained an enviable reputation and he is one of the rising stars of the younger generation of pianists.  He was joined in this recital by his teacher and mentor, Sergei Babayan who has not appeared in the UK as frequently as Trifonov but who is clearly an equally impressive performer.  The duo last appeared together in London at the Proms under the baton of Gergiev in a concert featuring all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos.  They dedicated tonight’s concert to the memory of the late Lord Weidenfeld, the distinguished publisher and philanthropist.

The concert began with Schumann’s Andante and Variations, which was originally written in 1843 for two pianos, two cellos and horn.  Clara Schumann and Mendelssohn were the two pianists who premièred the work and, following this somewhat unsuccessful outing, Mendelssohn advised Schumann to re-score the piece for two pianos.  Trifonov produces a very crystalline sound while Babayan’s tone is fuller and his playing and use of rubato is more old school so I was interested to see how they would blend together.  They showed a depth of musical understanding from the outset, capturing the dreamy world of Eusebius in the opening theme before gradually ushering us into the presence of Florestan as the variations became more playful and ardent.  There was a natural unforced quality to the playing which allowed Schumann’s manic, mercurial shifts in mood to emerge in a spontaneous way.  There was an excellent rapport between the players and some dazzling finger-work foreshadowed some of the fireworks to come.  Babayan has a tendency to hum during the performances but this only seemed to add to the charm of the occasion.

From Schumann we moved to Schubert’s F Minor Fantasie which was written in the last year of the composer’s short life.  The duo decided to perform the work on two pianos rather than as a duet on one piano and they alternated in the primo and secondo roles.  The opening theme was magical with Babayan playing the haunting melody with enormous delicacy and refinement.  As they progressed through the Adagio and scherzo sections I was struck by the highly cultivated nature of this performance:  both performers played with enormous sensitivity and depth of feeling.  They allowed the composer’s wonderful melodies to breathe while the handling of some of the extraordinary modulations was gorgeous.  The decision to play on two pianos paid dividends in the final fugue where the duo was able to create a wonderful feeling of space.  It was a remarkable performance of one of the great masterpieces of the repertoire.

The pair concluded the first half in boisterous fashion with some of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.  The transitions and shifts in mood were adeptly handled in No. 9 while Trifonov gave us some dazzling passage-work and Gypsy fire in No 10.  Both performers captured the sense of wistful yearning in No. 17 while the final dance (No. 21 in E Minor) was a barnstorming tour de force.

We moved from Germany to Russia for the second half with Rachmaninov’s two Suites for two pianos.  Rachmaninov’s title for the first Suite was ‘Fantasie-tableaux’ because he saw the work as a series of musical pictures.  Poems by Lermontov, Byron, Tyutchev and Khomyakov provide the inspiration for each of the four movements.  Much of the music has a seductive quality while the last two movements reflect the composer’s fascination with bell sounds.  The first Suite is not as well integrated as the Second and the music is more variable in quality – the last movement in particular is weak – although there is still much to admire.  Babayan sustained the line beautifully and captured the heady atmosphere of the opening Barcarolle while Trifonov gave us exquisitely woven arabesques and delicate traceries of sound.  Both performers captured the Lisztian rapture and voluptuous quality of Byron’s night of love to perfection in the second movement, while the bells of St Sophia’s Cathedral chimed with a haunting mesmeric insistence in the third.  The tempo for the final movement was a little slow (Rachmaninov’s marking is Allegro maestoso) but it gave the performers space to create vibrant colours and sonorities which made the repeated bell reverberations more interesting.

Rachmaninov’s Second Suite for two pianos was written in 1901 and it shows a considerable advance on the First in that the two pianos are fully integrated on equal terms.  Trifonov and Babayan took the opening alla marcia at an absolutely cracking pace – I don’t think I’ve heard it played so fast before – but it worked a treat:  I loved the dry kinetic rhythmic energy they brought to the opening section and they slowed the tempo down just enough for us to savour the lyrical middle section.  The section movement waltz is marked Presto and Trifonov and Babayan once again took the movement at a breathtaking pace, creating a whirling, dizzying kaleidoscope of sound while the lyrical episodes were played with a luxuriant warmth.  Both performers brought enormous musicality to the third movement Romance, allowing the grand Romantic sweep of the music to shine through.  The final galloping Tarantelle was a virtuoso tour de force: both pianists conjured an air of dread and diabolism from the music with its hints of the Dies Irae theme before thundering chords brought the work to its climactic conclusion.

This was an evening of awe inspiring, world class piano playing – bravo to both pianists.

Robert Beattie  

2 thoughts on “Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan; Pupil and Teacher form a World-Class Partnership”

  1. I have just learned that Daniil Trifonov played the above recital with one of his wrists in surgical strapping after he hurt it in a fall – I was completely unaware of this when I wrote the above review – now I am really in awe!

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