Daniil Trifonov thrills in edge of the seat journey at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom International Piano Series – Scriabin, Beethoven, Borodin, and Prokofiev: Daniil Trifonov (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London 31.10.2019. (CSa)

Daniil Trifonov (c) Dario Acosta/Deutsche Grammophon

Scriabin – Étude in C sharp minor, Op.2 No.1; Poémes, Op.32; 8 Études, Op.42; Poéme tragique, Op.34; Étude in D sharp minor, Op.8 No.12; Sonata No.9 in F, Op.68 (Black Mass)

Beethoven – Sonata in A flat, Op.110

Borodin Au couvent; Intermezzo; Serenade from Petite Suite

Prokofiev – Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84

Pale, gaunt, slight, bearded, with stray strands of hair falling about his anguished and delicately featured face, there is something of the tortured artist about Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov.  He was awkward and diffident as he hurriedly acknowledged the opening applause at London’s Royal Festival Hall, but once seated at the keyboard of his specially chosen Fazioli concert grand, he assumed total mastery of the music. Only 28 years old, his technical virtuosity and profound interpretative skills have already established him as one of the greatest concert pianists of the twenty-first century.

Although Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, No.31 in A flat major, formed the central part of the recital, it was undoubtedly Trifonov’s thrilling account of Alexander Scriabin’s mystical Black Mass Sonata which set the gold standard for the rest of the programme. This Chopin-inspired and musically sublime work – the composer himself approved of its satanic nickname – occupies a musical sound world on the edge of tonality. Trifonov’s demonic performance was certainly edge of the seat stuff, and not only for the audience. Crouched low over the keyboard like a tiger, and twisting and turning his slender frame with every transformation in the sonata’s opening theme, there were moments when Trifonov barely came into contact with the piano stool. As a disturbing and brilliantly executed trill arpeggio flowed into the sonata’s terrifying march, the young Russian, now half-standing, hammered out Scriabin’s increasingly fast and harshly disharmonious final bars. Such mannerisms in a performer can serve to distract the audience, yet Trifonov’s marked eccentricities never obscured the artistry of the performance. On the contrary, his intense physicality corresponded with the music’s inner tensions and added considerably to its drama.

Although Scriabin’s principal inspiration was the music of Chopin, he was strongly drawn to the piano sonatas of Beethoven, choosing to play the latter’s Sonata No.30 at his graduation at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892.  It therefore seemed entirely natural, and something of a relief, when Trifonov segued seamlessly from all the Scriabin dystopian musical landscape to the sunny uplands of the first movement cantabile of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.31. Expressive and dramatic in turn, Trifaonov mined the full dynamic range of his instrument. A magisterially played Allegro, leavened by passages of exquisite delicacy, gave way to a mighty fugue. His hands firmly on the keys, his eyes raised heavenwards, and his face bathed in the Royal Festival Hall’s chiaroscuro lighting, an iconic Trifonov guided us through what felt like a religious pilgrimage to an enthralling climax.

Starting the second half with Borodin’s Au couvent, Intermezzo, and three movements from his charming Petite Suite, the remaining programme was dominated by three movements of the last of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, Sonata No.8, in B flat major. Written between 1939 and 1944, this work alternates between soulful pre-revolutionary Russian lyricism and Stalinist brutalism. In lesser hands it can sometimes sound rather dated, but Trifonov’s dextrously accomplished interpretation had a cutting-edge modernity. Particularly memorable was his blazing account of the fiery codas which conclude the sonata’s first and last movements.

Although visibly drained and clearly exhausted by the programme’s huge technical and intellectual demands, Trifonov acceded to demands for more. He yielded up two Rachmaninoff encores: a glistening account of his Vocalise, and a translucent performance of Silver Bells from The Bells. These were soothing, joyful notes on which to end an evening of emotional extremes and high musical drama.

Chris Sallon

For more about Daniil Trifonov click here.

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