Had he been alive today, would Artur Schnabel have had half his success, in an age wedded to technical supremacy? Schnabel unquestionably had something special. Even with the fistfuls of wrong notes he was occasionally guilty of, he had the ability to bring each individual note to life, to imbue it with the power of the imagination. These days we take the art of playing all the notes – and in the right order – as a pre-requisite for stardom. There are plenty of young men and women who currently grace the international circuits with that level of technical assurance, but there are few who stand out in such a remarkable way as the 25-year-old Daniil Trifonov. If you haven’t already heard him play, seize the next opportunity! His name will be remembered many decades and centuries from now.

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

What makes his artistry so extraordinary? It is that rare quality in a turn of phrase, a single note savoured with a quiet intensity, which brings to mind Tennyson’s words: “Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?”

Schumann plays to Trifonov’s strengths. The first half of this recital was entirely devoted to this key Romantic composer, with the early Toccata the sandwich filling for two supremely confident collections of miniatures. Had he not suffered a serious hand injury in attempting to play such fiendishly difficult explosions of motoric energy, Schumann might easily have developed quite differently. As it is, he never again indulged in such a virtuosic display for display’s sake. A standout performance – such as the one that Trifonov delivered – will have an implied sense of danger, a feeling that the Catherine wheel is about to spin out of control but still manages to stay on course.

The thirteen pieces that make up his Kinderszenen are addressed to adults – “Reminiscences of a grown-up for grown-ups,” as Schumann, an early advocate of kindergartens, put it. Here, Trifonov offered playing of exceptional poise, with only a touch of occasional indulgence, as in Träumerei, that veered on the edge of stasis. One could only marvel at the little miracles of characterisation, not least in the penultimate Kind im Einschlummern, where the slow tempo and exquisite tonal colours perfectly mimicked the transition that takes you from consciousness into the arms of Morpheus.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana, consisting of eight movements dashed off in only four days, is all about extremes in tempo and dynamics. Trifonov’s formidable control was amply in evidence, the moments of poetic inwardness beautifully set against the mercurial shifts in tone and pace. Two movements especially hang in my memory. In the sixth, the dark colours of the night were explored with a glowing ardour, with the bass notes often pared down almost to the point of inaudibility. At the start of the eighth there was a breathtaking piece of dramaturgy, similar to what happens in the slow movement of Beethoven’s G major concerto, where the left hand almost willed the right hand – carrying the melody – into submission, only to return somewhat later with a subdued but defiant bass calling out “I’m still here!”

Particular pleasure in this recital came with the five Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues taken from his Op.87 collection. The two charges often levelled at Shostakovich are that his so-called imitations of Bach (and he freely admitted to the influence of Das wohltemperierte Klavier) amount to little more than pastiche, and that there’s nothing here that he didn’t trump in works of a larger scale. Such superficial criticism overlooks the fact that at their time of composition in 1950/51 Shostakovich was having to contend with an entirely hostile environment. Each of these miniatures has its own internal world offering coded statements on the condition of the artist, thus providing a wonderfully appropriate link with the earlier Schumann, and I would have gladly jettisoned the final programme item for more of the same.

But Trifonov would not be Trifonov without his hallmark hair-raising displays of prestidigitation. In the Three Movements from Petrushka, written as a display vehicle for Rubinstein in 1921, I would have preferred less of a scorching basic tempo. In the cascades of notes for “The Shrovetide Fair”, delivered with pinpoint accuracy, the pianist almost became a puppet at the keyboard performing a St Vitus Dance, his jerking physical movements mirroring the sharp angularity of the score. But then came those moments of utter repose, where Trifonov caressed the keys, in much the same way he had done during the first piece of Kinderszenen, as if stroking the cheeks of a small child, and the heart was once more reconciled to his point of view. This generous evening of pianistic splendour was rounded off with two Medtner encores.