Review: Daniil Trifonov

First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2016

There were moments when Daniil Trifonov’s forehead almost hit the keyboard and moments when he launched himself right off the piano stool — which might sound like showmanship from the wunderkid of old-school Russian powerhouse pianism, but nothing was mannered or bombastic in this recital. At 25 Trifonov is still the blaze of fearless, joyous virtuosity he was when he first played in Edinburgh four years ago, but what’s so exciting to witness is how he increasingly channels all that technical prowess into making softer rather than louder sounds. It’s as though the flashy stuff comes so easily that he’s far more interested in finding ways to make the piano sing or whisper or melt into liquid.

The programme was a typically immense mountain of notes: Brahms’s left-hand arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne, Liszt’s Paganini Etudes and Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata — about which the composer morosely predicted “nobody will ever play because of its difficulty”. For listeners it can be numbing to sit through these uber-dazzle piano recitals but Trifonov’s virtuosity is different. It’s elegant and purposeful, every trick deployed to summon new colours rather than as an end in itself.

And musically he ventured into some pretty uncomfortable places. The Brahms/Bach was tough and craggy; the Liszt was a marvel of silky, oleaginous textures; the Rachmaninov was dark, steely and tenacious, with stark simplicity at the end of the first movement and utter tenderness in the second. That pursuit of subtly and directness is becoming Trifonov’s real brilliance.