As I was leaving the auditorium after this, Daniil Trifonov’s second recital at Carnegie Hall, a boy of maybe eleven precocious years was insisting that he had not heard anything special. “On the whole, I really wasn’t that impressed.” 

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

Clearly my critical faculties are escaping me. For I found this an altogether more interesting concert than Trifonov’s first, given almost a year to the day and subsequently released on disc. At times, that had seemed like a box-ticking exercise in what a young pianist ought to offer: sonatas from Liszt and Scriabin (nothing out of the box, you understand), and Chopin’s preludes. A year later, Trifonov is as endearingly crumpled as ever, his tie seemingly dragged from a bottom drawer, his pair of trousers slightly too short, his hair floppy enough that it dangles precariously over the Steinway’s mechanism. He still hunches, like Glenn Gould, although the real magic comes when he leans back, and his fingers still tend to flatten, like those of Vladimir Horowitz. This time around there was no music so monumental, and yet more with which Trifonov could really show where his talents lie.

Stravinsky’s Serenade began things with a smacking metallicity. Composed of four short movements, this is one of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, one which the composer modelled on the Nachtmusiken of the eighteenth century. Trifonov, though, focused on Stravinsky’s lingering spikiness, and even on early intimations of atonality. Trifonov is a composer – he premieres a new work for piano and orchestra in Cleveland later this year – and you can tell in the way he approaches his playing. The opening “Hymne” was aggressive, far more so than the composer’s own recording, although the following “Romanza” did more to pit pure violence against an almost wistful raptness. Here one heard, for the first time, Trifonov’s supreme dynamic control at extreme speeds, a feature of the entire concert. The “Rondoletto” had a rhythmic zap, while the “Cadenza finale” was painted in comparatively golden hues, practically a euphoric return to the hues of Debussy and Ravel.

Onwards, indeed, to the two Frenchmen, and selections from the Images and the Miroirs. If having only two of Debussy’s three Images on offer felt a bit cheap, “Reflets dans l’eau” more than made up for it. There was not the mastery of deconstruction that Marc-André Hamelin had offered here a week beforehand, nor quite the aged humanity, but there was more atmosphere, and more colour too. Trickles down from the right hand virtually liquefied the sound, and there was a sense of discovery rare in such a commonplace work. “Mouvement” was played firmly through the hands of a Stravinskian, the vim of Pétrouchka obviously audible. Whether it was implied or imposed was another matter. Then the Miroirs, again with the last piece of the suite lopped off. Moths have rarely been as playful as in Trifonov’s “Noctuelles”, flitting along and yet somehow profound. “Oiseaux tristes” again looked to Stravinsky, while “Une barque sur l’océan” had real menace. Trifonov again found a rhythmic bite for “Alborada del gracioso”, the most difficult of these pieces, mixed in with gorgeous spread chords and a scarcely credible brilliance to conclude.

Schuman’s Symphonic Études took up the second half, and they were as impulsive as Schumann comes. Truly Romantic sensibility hid what was actually the tautest of formal control, a span maintained and transformed that drove handsomely towards resolution. Trifonov’s naturally clarity allowed minute degradations of voicing to emerge, a corollary to thunderous power in the mock march of the fourth Étude and the harshness of the sixth. A propulsive beat and eager line gave the illusion of tiny emotional triumphs, matched by the – perhaps overly – stretched-out spells of desolate solitude in the two last posthumously published variations. And then, finally, an explosion of joy for the final etude, a variation on “Proud England, rejoice!” from an opera by Heinrich Marschner, with a sense of harmonic drive and finality to match.

Three encores rounded things off, the second of which showed exactly why Chopin can wait for this pianist. Still, this was superb, whatever the kids think.