Daniil Trifonov is in love with music. He communicates that love through some of the most heartfelt piano playing we hear today, a soulful expression delivered through technical excellence, unique interpretative forays, and that inexplicable chemistry some artists have with their audiences whether face-to-face in the concert hall or streamed into the ear through a wireless device.

Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | DG

Indeed, Trifonov’s personal appearance and his innate ability to communicate ultra-musically plays an important role in his success. There is something vulnerable and deeply sincere about him, not a touch of the arrogance or brashness we expect from a young man of such staggering ability. Not yet 30 years of age, this Russian has the aura of a charismatic staret, a holy man besotted by the divine, able to inspire and captivate others through a touch or smile.

Trifonov is artist-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, which he joined for an all-Russian program. The auditorium was packed with a wide range of concertgoers – established patrons, young people, the curious – in a program of Scriabin’s Piano Concerto in F sharp minor and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under the baton of Jaap van Zweden.

Scriabin's concerto is a sadly neglected morsel of imaginative Romantic composition. It is the composer’s only concerto, composed in his 20s when he was still under the spell of Chopin. Scriabin’s career is a fascinating journey from the lush Romanticism of this work to the atonal and dissonant, with stops along the way for vivid synesthesia (which, among other meanings, refers to seeing colors when one hears music).

Throughout the work, Trifonov extracted volumes of intense feeling from the music, seamlessly interspersed with delicate fingering in the upper register. Imagine gossamer or lace permeated with a core of indestructibility. The pianist’s face reflected every shift in the composer’s mood, as he gazed up at some distant star only he could see or fell over the keys to deliver a tumble of powerful but never coarsely articulated chords. Unlike many of the closed-eye head-shakers of modern performance, Trifonov’s physical responses ring with authenticity. At times, he would start, and smile warmly, as though discovering a kitten on the keyboard, or would shake his head slowly with disbelief that anyone could compose a work so intelligent yet emotionally rich.

The work contains many delightful surprises, including two delicious pairings of the clarinet and piano in the second movement. Here, the piano was accompanied in the expected style by the woodwind, but soon the roles were reversed, the piano providing a gentle obbligato to the clarinet’s lyrical melody. Trifonov’s touch was thoughtful and varied in this movement, a set of variations at times brilliant, at other moments dark and evocative as the “mystic color blue” Scriabin claimed to see in the key of F sharp major. The work concluded in the third movement with alternating waves of storm and reconciliation, at one point, Trifonov gazing up at the conductor with a look of supplication, then ending on a hushed "Amen" of true spiritual resolution. The pianist performed a heavy but intense reading of a Scriabin etude as an encore.

With twice the number of musicians on stage, the second half of the concert featured van Zweden’s dazzling interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The symphony has frequently been associated with war and violence, but what could be lovelier than the haunting horn solo in the second movement or the Nutcracker-like waltz in the third movement. Tremendous swells of energy and dynamics, at times to the point of frenzy, characterized this performance, with all the musicians playing in determined synchronicity. Van Zweden kept time relentlessly with the baton in his right hand, but his left was like an independent living creature, coaxing and caressing, bringing together close to a hundred virtuosi from differing traditions into a synthesis of unity and exaltation.