An ambitious programme demonstrated the musical passions and prowess of this most sought-after pianist, holding the Halloween audience in his devilish spell. Daniil Trifonov is one of those artists that seems to be constantly on the edge of dangerous wildness simply by way of his presence and posture at the piano. While other artists appear to be on the verge of their technical abilities in some virtuosic works, no such fears with Trifonov, whose technique, musicality and stamina appear to be limitless.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

And what better composer to demonstrate the range of his abilities and temperament than Alexander Scriabin. Lush textures and an increasingly troubled and unstable harmonic palette characterise his work, requiring extreme virtuosity to achieve the effects needed. The group of shorter pieces that started the evening were bookended by two of his most famous works, the very early Etude in C sharp minor Op.2 no.1 and the heroic Etude in D sharp minor, Op.8 no.12. In between was an unbroken series of small works which seemed to act almost as a portrait of the emotionally volatile composer.

Trifonov was equal to every twist and turn, moving from open-hearted romance to deep introspection at the toss of a coin. Relatively uninterested in clarifying the textures, his primary aim was to present the soul of the works through physicality and strength of personality. As a whole this particular playlist was perhaps a little too long and the juxtaposition of the works from different decades felt counter-intuitive. A little Scriabin can go a long way and after a while his turbulent universe is not a comfortable place to be, especially if it is presented as vividly as it was here.

To completely contradict myself though, the performance of the “Black Mass” Ninth Sonata that followed left a much more focussed impression. Trifonov’s intensity and technical brilliance presented this condensed and tortuous work in the most dramatic light. Composer and performer seemed to be locked together creatively and out of the gloom of the final bars, Trifonov surprisingly moved directly into the warm A flat major of Beethoven’s Op.131 Sonata.

This wilful shift of tone worked surprisingly well after the sustained complications of the Scriabinfest. And as this penultimate sonata is one of the composer's most beautiful and positive creations, it proved to be something of an antidote. Trifonov switched his style to capture the dreamlike arpeggios of the first movement and found a contemporary dance beat in the short Scherzo. Only in the multi-layered finale was there a sense of him pushing a little too hard in the recitative passages. However, the final fugue was measured and powerfully dignified.

After the interval Trifonov continued the simplified content with three movements from Borodin's Petite Suite, simple folk-inspired bonbons with a soft centre, as a prelude to Prokofiev's Piano Sonata no. 8 in B flat. And here Trifonov had his ‘do or die’ moment. The long and complex first movement was balanced well with the dramatic passages well integrated into the structure. Only occasionally was there a sense of the right hand being underpowered and not finding that crystalline clarity one looks for in Prokofiev.

The central Andante sognando’s ghostly dance was captured well but it was in the complex finale that Trifonov threw in his all. The ambivalent tone of the movement, shifting swiftly from joy to violence, was a rollercoaster ride. The final bars were strained to the limit of what could be achieved on a piano. This masterwork of the 20th-century piano repertoire certainly made its mark here, but can also do so with a more measured build up of tension.

Two Rachmaninov encores charmed and seduced after the onslaught and ended this intense recital with a smile.

****1