Returning Sunday (Feb. 28) to La Jolla for his fourth local performance since he won the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Competition, the young Russian virtuoso Daniil Trifonov confirmed yet again that he is the preeminent concert pianist of his generation.Trifonov, who turns all of 25 at the end of this week, brandished his astonishing technique and profound interpretive insight in a wide-ranging 2 & 1/2 hour solo recital in Sherwood Auditorium for the La Jolla Music Society. From J. S. Bach and Franz Schubert to Brahms and Rachmaninoff, Trifonov passionately dispatched some of the most challenging works of the repertory with breathtaking technical prowess.
But do not think for a moment that Trifonov is some fine-tuned Olympic gymnast of the keyboard. In his program-opening Chaconne from J. S.Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004—a violin solo arranged for piano (left hand only!) by Johannes Brahms—Trifonov attended to a myriad of details, including boldly-voiced chordal progressions, glowing contrapuntal textures, impeccable ornamentation, and ravishing dynamic contrasts. The burnished sonority he pulled from the bass end of the keyboard and the subtle imitation of violin bowing in certain portions of Bach’s treble figurations filled the transcription with impressive color contrasts.
These virtues, however, took a back seat to the towering sonic cathedral the performer constructed in that modest concert hall on Prospect St. They paled in contrast to the mesmerizing pull of Trifonov’s fierce declamation and the mystical aura he evoked, a feat that transported the packed room of listeners to rapt attention approaching meditation. La Jolla audiences know how to be polite in a concert hall, but the focus of the room left mere polite attention in the dust mere moments into the Chaconne.
Like J. S. Bach, Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the towering virtuosos of his day. And just as the Russian composer’s piano concertos present immense difficulties to the soloist, his less well-known Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor is accessible only to the most accomplished performers. Having heard other pianists attempt this sonata, I am relieved to have heard Trifonov’s stunning account.
Although there is some debate about whether or not Geothe’s Faust inspired the sonata or if Goethe’s main characters are represented by each of the sonata’s three movements, Trifonov aptly portrayed the sonata’s abstract dramatic temperament with consummate panache.
In the opening movement, Trifonov lifted up soaring melodies—like the ones for which his piano concertos are so beloved—out of roiling, voluptuous textures, and his poignant themes from the middle movement Lento ascended to ethereal heights. The finale’s smashing toccata, with its barely disguised symphonic proportions, could not have sounded more triumphant.
Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata, D. 894, gave Trifonov the opportunity to reveal his interpretation of more introverted musical expression. He proved a master of subtly graduated dynamics and gleaming, transparent textures, especially those delicate figures that started in the highest realm of the keyboard and then descended to a mighty rumble of bass chords. Economy of exposition is not one of Schubert’s compositional virtues, but Trifonov cogently organized this sprawling sonata and made the most of the playful rondo that ties together the final movement.
Johannes Brahms took the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s celebrated “Caprice” Variations for violin and wrote extensive virtuoso piano variations that he called—not surprisingly—Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Of Brahms’ two sets, Trifonov played the first set to close the opening half of his recital with a furious, hurricane force demonstration of complex, cross-hand dexterity. Muscular attacks and perfectly calibrated, exhilarating climaxes gave Brahms his due and then some.
After an unusually long recital, Trifonov did not stint on encores: Mikhail Pletnev’s arrangement of “The Silver Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty; Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude for left hand in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and Liszt’s “Grandes études de Paganini, S. 141, No. 6.
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This recital was played at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Sherwood Auditorium on February 28, 2016, sponsored by the La Jolla Music Society. That organization will present the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Jacobs Music Center in downtown San Diego on March 23, 2016, at 8:00 p.m., featuring Daniil Trifonov as soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.