Portland Piano International review: Daniil Trifonov

Daniil Trifonov.

Daniil Trifonov


“Every performance should be an exploration and should have spontaneity,” Daniil Trifonov told Oregon ArtsWatch about his demonically explosive March 8 piano recital  at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. In the penultimate entry in Portland Piano International’s 2013-2014 season, the prizewinning 23-year-old Russian turned listeners’ grumblings at yet another evening of Frederic Chopin’s 24 preludes, op. 28 into a hollering standing ovation, showcasing two of the elements in his extraordinary musicianship: exploratory transitions from one prelude to the next and spontaneous body language.


In his performance of Chopin’s Prelude 13, for example, Trifonov achieved his softest, most melting moment; like every pianist, he achieved this using sophisticated finger legato and half-pedaling, but unlike every other pianist, his ears separated the walls of harmonic changes into individual melodic lines so that even at his softest, listeners weren’t lost in a haze of sound, but rather comprehended an aural landscape illuminated by many beams of light.

“No note is an accident,” Trifonov told ArtsWatch. “Every note has some purpose or meaning. No compositional decision is random.” When the main theme returned, he played the e-natural against the e-sharp with chilling subtlety; even though Trifonov was back in the land of F-sharp major, his short journey had changed him, and he carried a conflict still needing resolution.

This conflict erupted in Prelude no. 14. Rising out of the Lento like a furious dragon, the Allegro lasts only about 30 seconds. Trifonov began his fiery triplets at the same pianissimo of no. 13 but then flew out in streaks of rage. Far from being a mechanical player, Trifonov performed this prelude without fear of wrong notes; in fact, “wrong” notes dotted the landscape frequently, but like the mid-20th century pianist and conductor Philippe Entremont said of Alfred Cortot, the first pianist to ever record these preludes, “Even his mistakes were fabulous! Nobody has ever played the Chopin Etudes the way [he] played them. They are so immense, so gigantic; the nonconformity, the fabulous drive — the poetry of the music was airborne.”

In this raging prelude, Trifonov moved and gasped like one giving birth. Both pretty distracting and oddly fascinating, Trifonov, unlike his more famous contemporary Lang Lang, doesn’t seem to be aware that the audience is watching. “I leave every performance spiritually exhausted,” he said. He stands up from the bench blinking in surprise that an audience is on their feet and roaring.

Because the audience did in fact roar, after he concluded his program with Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations in F Major op. 19, no. 6 from Six Pieces, and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, op. 1, Trifonov obliged with two encores. As soon as he began the first, an audience member whispered, “Oh, we’ve heard this before!” Technically, yes. Vadym Kholodenko performed Rachmaninoff’s Suite from the Partita in E Major by J.S. Bach at another Portland Piano concert last month, and Trifonov decided to play the Gavotte from this suite as his encore. However, no two performances could have been more different. Whereas Kholodenko’s performance was very properly performed, Trifonov threw propriety out the window. Exuding joy and giddy excitement over Bach’s playful thirds, Trifonov tumbled gleefully through this familiar landscape like a carefree butterfly spontaneously exploring new territory.

Next up for PPI: Garrick Ohlsson on Sunday, May 4 at Newmark Theatre. Tickets still available. Following this concert, artistic director Arnaldo Cohen will announce PPI’s 2014-2015 season.

Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

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