Bespectacled and bearded these days, the prodigiously talented Daniil Trifonov still cuts a shy, modest figure on the recital platform. His fringe flops as he hunches over the keyboard, peering nervously over the piano’s rim as if searching for a lost key among the hammers. He acknowledges applause – often tumultuous – with a single bow before darting to the safety of Wigmore Hall's Green Room. His voice is gentle, his apprehensive announcement of his encore struggling to reach the back of the Stalls. Yet he can make the piano sing gloriously.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta | DG
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

In a nattily tailored programme, Trifonov offered a first half of works inspired by Frédéric Chopin before turning to Chopin himself after the interval. Two of the Op.28 Préludes were the basis for the two sets of variations played, those by Federico Mompou and Sergei Rachmaninov. Based on Chopin’s Prelude in A major, Op.28 no. 7 – the one known to many from Fokine’s ballet Les Sylphides – Mompou’s set of variations was also destined for the stage. It was commissioned by the Royal Ballet but never performed, and the score was later published in its own right. In a charming performance, Trifonov brought out both the score’s poetry and the whimsy. Several of the variations are languid in nature, the Russian pianist leaning back and flattening his fingers, stroking the keys gently. The haunting Variation 10 – which Mompou subtitled Évocation and which also quotes Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu – was the work’s poised centrepiece. In the faster variations, Trifonov would occasionally raise his hands theatrically, but never in a showy manner.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Chopin in C minor for piano uses the Prelude in C minor, Op.28 no. 20, which was dubbed the "Funeral March" prelude by Hans von Bülow. The lugubrious Russian composer takes Chopin’s solemn chord progression and treats them to a giddy sequence of fleeting variations – some last barely 15 seconds – that offer the pianist the chance to dazzle. Trifonov’s virtuosity is of the unassuming variety, leaning into the keyboard while scampering through Variation 7, hammering the Martellato Variation 10 with musical precision. With judicious use of the sustain pedal and a feathery touch in the treble, Trifonov brought out the bright bell-like tone of the Fazioli the central Variations 13 and 14, teardrops splashing from the right hand as Chopin’s theme was picked out in the bass register. The piano’s tone, however, occasionally sounded a little sterile and lacked the richness of the Wigmore Hall Steinway. In the first printed edition of the score, Rachmaninov gave the option to omit three of the variations (11, 18 and 19) and the Presto finale. Trifonov took him up on this offer and closed with a repeat of the original theme.

In between the two sets of variations, Trifonov played four miniatures, moulded into a Chopin-inspired suite. He teased and nudged the “Chopin” movement from Schumann’s Carnaval into shape before a gruff homage by Grieg and some knotty Barber. There was balletic lilt to Tchaikovsky’s Un poco de Chopin, but also a few Luftpausen which sometimes interrupted the melodic line too wilfully.

If the Chopin-themed first half was little short of a triumph, Trifonov’s performance of the Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor “Funeral March” after the interval was a disappointment, a daring reading certainly, but one that still has the mark of work in progress. There was a lot of fierce exhaling as he attacked the first two movements as if grappling with a wild beast, fast playing that employed excessive use of pedal. The funeral march was taken at an exceedingly slow tempo, a sullen trudge with little sense of movement. Its D flat major trio was stretched so long that, as a listener, you focused on each individual note rather than the whole phrase, like a necklace that breaks, spilling individual pearls to the floor in slow motion. After a furious finale, coaxed back by the capacity crowd, Trifonov returned to tranquil repose with a serene encore in the shape of Alfred Cortot’s dreamy transcription of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor; moonbeams by the dozen.

***11