United States Various: Daniil Trifonov (piano). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 13.11.2022. (HS)
Tchaikovsky – Children’s Album
Schumann – Fantasie in C major
Mozart – Fantasia in C minor, K.475
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.5
Daniil Trifonov presents himself as a no-nonsense pianist, but what emerges from the Steinway can take one’s breath away. His recital in San Francisco touched on music from a range of familiar composers, each piece, in different ways, among their most subversive.
He walked briskly onto the Davies Hall stage, looking much less shaggy and windblown than in recent appearances, bowed courteously to all angles of the 3,000-plus in the audience, took a moment to settle in and launched into the quiet opening measures of Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album.
Ostensibly Tchaikovsky intended these two dozen miniatures for beginners. The simplicity of the first, ‘Morning Prayer’, fit the description, but Trifonov revealed a soft and velvety touch few beginners could produce. The flourishes on ‘Farmer Playing the Accordion’ and ‘Baba Jaga’, however, would be well beyond the capabilities of a child. The sustained drones of the last one, ‘The Organ Grinder Sings’, created some cross-instrumental magic.
Next up was Schumann’s Fantasie in C major. Among the composer’s most technically challenging pieces, this sprawling 30-minute work is dedicated to Franz Liszt (who wrote plenty of finger-busters himself). Trifonov found ways to create tone and manage pace to bring out the constantly shifting moods. Fast-moving ripples made a soft halo for the majestic melody that begins the saga, which then settles into a slow but passionate prayer that, in this performance, surged with undertones of despondency. The jaunty march of the middle section felt like someone shaking off the blues, and the slow, searching, final section unfolded with remarkable patience and finesse.
After the intermission came Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, another piece that beginners can play. With subtle hesitations and shifts of texture, Trifonov brought out Mozart’s witty ways of playing with expectations. When the overall structure wandered, as it does, he acknowledged the surprises with the musical equivalent of a wry smile, and never sacrificed Mozartian elegance.
Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit ranks among the steepest mountains for pianists to climb just to play the notes. It delves into harmonic complexities far beyond the composer’s other familiar pieces. The watery waves in the opening measures of ‘Ondine’ flowed with seemingly endless motion against the dancelike tunes depicting the titular nymph. The second movement, ‘Gibet’ (‘gallows’), seems simple on the surface, with its repetitive pedal tones and sustained chords, but Trifonov found just the right tempo to keep things moving with an inevitability and a touch to make the chords seem to swell. The breakneck ‘Scarbo’, with its torrents of dissonance, raced with a frenzy to a breathless finish. It could have gone off the rails at any point, but Trifonov didn’t miss a note.
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No.5 actually upped the ante on Ravel’s notoriously difficult piece, adding layers of near-atonal dissonance to the buffeting mood-changes. Softer respites gave us a chance to breathe between ferocious onslaughts of pianistic dazzle. Remarkably, the fast but deft sections registered just as brightly as the big, loud ones. The final gesture, a rush toward the high end of the keyboard, turned Trifonov’s entire body to the audience, and he took advantage of it to step seamlessly off the piano bench for his bow.
It was the only time he did anything physically histrionic, but it was just the right gesture to draw a well-deserved standing ovation. On the fourth curtain call, he relented and played an encore: Myra Hess’s elegant transcription of Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ lifted us above the dark clouds of the Scriabin with tenderness and nobility.