Daniil Trifonov’s late Sunday afternoon programme, part of the Shriver Hall Concert Series and pre-recorded at the 92nd Y in New York, included early works by representatives of three national composition schools: German, French and Russian. The pianist managed to build unexpected bridges between them.

Daniil Trifonov
© Shriver Hall Concert Series

Debussy was in his late thirties and already the author of several definitive opuses when he started working on Pour le piano. Nevertheless, the three-movement suite is one of the composer’s first successful attempts to transfer to piano music the new vocabulary that he had previously outlined in his vocal and orchestral output. Even if the titles given to the three separately conceived movements evoke the art of the Baroque, the idiom is characteristically Debussian. With its echoes of Rameau or gamelan music, its rich colour palette and glissando runs, the Prelude is an astonishing output. Easily making the textures glow, Trifonov could have brought more dynamic and rhythmic variations to his rendition. However, making the listener oblivious to all the technical difficulties, he imbued his sound with an eerie, harp-like quality in the Sarabande while his handling of the Toccata was the epitome of delicacy and grace.

The five Sarcasms were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory, having already performed some of the short, uncompromising musical outbursts by Schoenberg and Bartók. Between pounding dissonant chords and gossamer arpeggios, they are among his most experimental piano works. Without ignoring the grotesque, the bitter irony, the deliberate shrill sounds, Trifonov uncovered the Debussian vein in these scores. He struck a wonderful balance between the unbridled energy and the lyricism in the central Allegro precipitato and between the stiff first theme and the songful second one in the Tempestuoso. The gloomy, nervous images sequences in the last snippet, Preciptosissimo, seemed to stem from Pelléas et Mélisande. Trifonov caressed and barely plucked the keys, as if they were harp chords instead. The final descent into pianississimo – the music almost freezing – was filled with anxiety.

The weightiest work on the programme was the final one, Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor. Trifonov’s occasionally frenzied and sometimes detached approach worked less well here. The overall soundscape had a certain “proto-impressionistic”, ethereal quality, but it lacked sufficient pathos and gravity. Trifonov only reluctantly emphasised the heroic character of certain pages or the doubt and pessimism (signalled by the repeated references to the Beethovenian “fate motif”) that already permeate the composer’s music. Nevertheless, this different tactic generated new perspectives. Ignoring the maestoso indication, the pianist delved hurriedly into the first movement’s initial chords, bringing them an unexpected sense of immediacy. The Andante espressivo was not intense, but full of poetic charm. The additional Rückblick didn’t only “look back” to the second movement, but beautifully brought forward Schubertian reminiscences. Finally, in the Rondo, Trifonov, incessantly navigating through the series of rhythmic and dynamic transformations, truly unified the multiple threads of the rich musical material imagined by a 20-year-old composer trying to prove himself worthy of Robert Schumann’s praise.

This performance was reviewed from the Shriver Concerts video stream