He looks like he should still be at school, yet he plays with the commanding presence, exceptional technical facility and deep commitment a professional artist thrice his years would envy. He’s slight, floppy haired, yet he can bring power and richness to the boldest fortissimo passages, while his pianissimos are delicate whispers. Welcome to the world of Daniil Trifonov.

Superlatives quickly become redundant when attempting to describe the pianistic feats of this young artist, winner in 2011 of both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein Competitions, and still only 23. He’s already got a clutch of recordings under his belt, and is in demand around the world. His London concert marked his Royal Festival Hall debut (he has already played at the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls), and it was therefore a pity that due to an unfortunate, and probably accidental, concert clash with Behzod Abduraimov’s Wigmore Hall recital, the Festival Hall was not as full-to-bursting as it might have been for this eagerly-anticipated debut.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta

I have been curious to hear Trifonov live, having missed his previous visits to London. I had intended to explore his recordings ahead of the Festival Hall concert, but didn’t, so it was good to come to his concert with fresh ears and an open mind. Pianist friends have been urging me to hear him, describing him as “the real thing” (presumably, as opposed to some hotshot youngster from the “louder-faster” school of 21st century pianism).

There is no doubting his genius technical facility: this was evident from the opening notes of J S Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV542, transcribed for piano by Liszt, right through to the closing cadence of the final Transcendental Etude “Chasse-neige”, a piece of precipitous passagework and whirling chromatic motifs. But there’s more, far more, to Daniil Trifonov than fleet fingers. In the Bach, in particular in the Fugue, his sense of voicing, contrasting textures and dynamic nuancing was utterly convincing, despite a certain stridency in the upper registers of the Fazioli piano, the instrument Trifonov had chosen for his performance.

In Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22 (a last-minute programme alteration, this was included instead of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.111, with a note from the pianist explaining that he felt this work had more connection to the Bach), we witnessed Trifonov’s expert handling of a large-scale work, with all its contrasting tempi, moods, textures and monumental technical challenges. Not often played, this work, which takes Chopin’s stately and funereal Prelude in C minor, Op.28 no. 20 as its starting point, has a grand scale, yet is full of familiar Rachmaninov idioms and themes – nods to the ever-popular Second Piano Concerto and some of the Preludes in its arching melodies and filigree passages. A pianist colleague of mine once said that one experiences the vastness of the Russian landscape in Rachmaninov’s writing, and scale and breadth of this work held no fear for Trifonov. A Russian himself, he displayed a profound understanding of this work, bringing together all the elements to create a wondrous and absorbing whole, full of sonic contrasts, colourful shadings and the most delicate pianissimos.

Liszt’s 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante S139 are amongst the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and only the bravest can scale their heights successfully. The pieces are not to everyone’s taste, and are probably responsible for some of the stereotypical – and very unfair – views of Liszt as a superficial pianistic showman. There are pyrotechnics aplenty in these works, but there are moments of great tenderness and stillness, elegantly-turned melodies and sombre vistas amongst the tortuous leaps and bounds. There was much to admire in Trifonov’s account of these works, not least his ability to take them beyond a mere catalogue of virtuosity, revealing the narratives and poetry within the music, unearthing layers of meaning, character and subtleties from the otherwise dense scoring. There were a couple of anxious moments, the odd smudged octave, but this was a cursory glance into the abyss. Trifonov harnessed his forces to complete the task in hand with a thrilling intensity and obvious pleasure in the music.

How does one follow such a display of peerless pianism and stamina? With Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” from Images Book 1, five minutes of sublime luminosity, a perfect and refreshing musical palate cleanser.

*****