Review: Daniil Trifonov and Philadelphia Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos 2 and 4

Full disclosure: I am a Trifonov fanboy.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be objective (or at least strive to be). If anything, Trifonov along with a handful of others is a rare thing in the classical music world: a musician with a certain mystique about him. That makes him and his work a fascinating study. And that might also mean it makes reviewing a recording of his a more interesting process.

That accounts for why its taken longer to write this than would normally be the case. I’ve wanted to listen to carefully, not only to the recording (on a variety of different speakers and earphones), but also to how I react to some of the effects this particular set of recordings has on me as I listen. 

The release consists of two concertos and some Rachmaninov arrangements. It’s a great selection and makes complete sense as a whole. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the two concertos. 

Piano Concerto No.2: studious, meticulous and forensic

Of the two concertos on the album, Trifonov’s interpretation of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is the most thought-provoking. It’s a meticulously executed interpretation with a much more limited dynamic range than I’ve ever heard before.

The tempi are restless because the range of different speeds are so broad. Yet, the shifts between those different tempi are breathtakingly efficient. This approach to dynamics and speeds means that a lot of the figurative detail in the piano and orchestral parts can be heard, the kind of detail usually sacrificed in more over-sentimentalised performances. 

The recording combines a rich but not overly-lush backdrop with an intimate capture of the front desk strings meaning we get depth with a bit of texture on the top – in the faster sections that results in a lean kind of urgency. 

The breathtaking moment for me is in the second movement when the upper strings claim the melody from the piano. It is a magical textural moment that makes sense of the comparatively drier ambience and smaller sound heard during the woodwind solos at the beginning of the movement.

This transition from woodwind to strings marks a tipping point for the emotion in the whole concerto – the moment when the subject gains self-confidence. This alone transforms what could easily have been just another recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto into something incredibly powerful.

Piano Concerto No.4: skittish, dark and complex

In comparison to number two, the fourth piano concerto is a much more demanding listen for the newcomer. Paradoxically, I think it’s the reluctant, complex character that Trifonov draws out of the work which actually makes it a performance I want to listen to more and more thus making it more familiar. 

The first movement has a skittish restless quality to it, emphasised by the same attention to dynamic and tempi the Philadelphia gave in the second concerto. The only difference is that this concerto performance is live – that makes the character Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin create all the more remarkable.

That skittishness isn’t alienating – it draws me in. There are references to Gershwin and Debussy in a work that seems as far away from the second concerto as a composer still writing in the same harmonic language could possibly be.

The opening of the second movement illustrates the dramatic shift in harmonic language. Trifonov highlights a sense of ambiguity in what is at its heart a beautifully simple melodic idea. When the strings pick up the melody and drag through endless modulations the restlessness is emphasised further, challenging our assumptions about the crowd-pleaser Rachmaninov and prompting us to see him in a new light.

Comparing this live performance to Rachmaninov’s original with the Philadelphia in 1941, Andsnes, Lugansky or Ashkenazy, makes the character Trifonov is creating more tortured and perhaps even fraught. Is that my imagination? I’m not sure. That might be another way in which the recording has held my attention and demanded so many repeat listens since its release earlier this week.

A measure of the extent to which Trifonov’s technical mastery could be taken for granted can be heard in the phenomenally complex and decorative third movement. If there is to be a sense of resolution in the material it is harder fought, drawing on the same meticulous precision evident throughout the album.

But here more than in any other movement I think there’s a bigger, freer sound, as though the studiousness of the second concerto has now given way to a character who has, by virtue of age and experience, acquired more confidence. 

This release has been both a surprise discovering and will become an important highlight for me come the end of the year. I think its a fascinating thing that yields much. It’s a recording I fully expect to return to in the future. 

Listen to Daniil Trifonov and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Spotify

Daniil Trifonov wins Best Classical Instrumental Solo at the Grammys

News from the Grammys which did get overlooked by me was that pianist Daniil Trifonov won Best Classical Instrumental Solo.

I’m very pleased about this. As time has passed since I got to interview him over breakfast, I’ve turned into a bit of a fanboy of his. I found his awkwardness endearing and mildly alluring.

That combined with surprising eagerness to have his picture taken with him made him to perfect anti-celebrity. What transpired in the Salles des Combins in Verbier where he careered through Franz Lizst’s epic Trascendental Etudes, made him a bit of a hero.

It was an event that also opened a door to a whole new listening world for me: solo piano music.

Daniil Trifonov is an amazing musician. His recording of the Etudes for Deustche Gramophon brings back happy memories of an important moment in Verbier for me. Really pleased he’s been recognised.

This video of him playing in the NPR offices last week is definitely worth a look if you’ve not seen the great man at the keyboard before.

Listen to Daniil Trifonov’s recording of Franz Lizst’s Trascendental Etudes on Spotify


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Verbier 2015: Daniil Trifonov / Liszt Transcendental Etudes

Daniil Trifonov didn’t dissapoint at Verbier this evening. His piano recital at the Salle de Combins was epic.

A first half of Rachmaninov suites for two pianos saw a highly charged, tightly wound Trifonov sit at one keyboard, with his teacher Sergei Babayan sat at the other. The Romance in the second suite was ravishing; the fourth movement Tarantelle motored on at a pace before coming to a spectacular joyous end.

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Daniil Trifonov playing the Transcendental Etudes by Lizst at the Verbier Festival.
The second half consisted of one work: Liszt’s Twelve Trascendental Etudes. Words can’t really do any justice for what the young pianist achieved in the performance of technically demanding work. Most, if not all, of the near-1200 strong audience members, were pinned to their seats. A monumental triumph.

Watch the entire concert via Medici.TV

Pictures in this post are the copyright of Nicolas Brodard.

Me and Daniil Trifonov

Daniil Trifonov in Verbier talks BBC Proms, Prokofiev and Glazunov

I spent some time with pianist Daniil Trifonov first thing this morning. He’s here at the Verbier Festival regular (the delights of which I’m currently sampling). One of his concerts was last night in which he played one of the three pianos in Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos with Daniel Matsuev and – making a rare appearance at the keyboard – Valery Gergiev.

My interview technique follows a tried and tested script, taught me by my radio production tutor Michael Kaye. “Set the device recording, then ask them what they had for breakfast that morning. That usually warms them up.”

Unfortunately, I had to wait at the dining table for Trifonov to return from another interview elsewhere in the hotel. While I waited, I realised that the half-eaten breakfast in front of me was Trifonov’s, making my customary sound-check a little tricky. We concentrated instead on what he had for lunch yesterday: pasta with porcini.

Daniil was, as I had been advised, adorable company. A self-assured, self-possessed individual who articulates his passion for art in speech just as he does at the platform.

He’s playing Prokofiev’s first and third concerto next week at the BBC Proms with Valery Gergiev and the LSO. I asked him about this performance of Prokofiev 1 with Gergiev with the Marinsky Orchestra. “Prokofiev is a sadist in that work. There is no warm up. I’m straight in right at the beginning. There are no passing notes. Everything has to be,” he said as he tapped out the opening phrase on the dining table, “just so.”

It’s not his first time at the Proms. Hence him highlighting its unique atmosphere. “There’s nowhere else like it. It’s an amazing experience.” Trifonov debuted with the Glazunov piano concerto in 2013. “Not many people knew it at the time. I didn’t until I discovered it on You Tube.”

Daniil Trifonov. 25. Rock star. Who wouldn’t want to have a picture taken with him?