in: Reviews

March 15, 2015

Total Technique, Lesser Affect


 Daniil Trifonov at Jordan Hall. (Robert Torres photo)

Daniil Trifonov at Jordan Hall. (Robert Torres photo)

A large and enthusiastic crowd greeted Daniil Trifonov’s arrival on Jordan Hall’s stage Friday night for the Celebrity Series of Boston. The few empty seats probably resulted from reduction in parking spaces by the remaining snowdrifts. I almost missed the concert because of this, but a pile of snow should never stop a hearty New Englander from his appointed rounds of reporting on great music.

Trifonov is a “virtuoso pianist” in the grand tradition of virtuoso piano players. He is also a big pianist, as in a big technique, big gestures, and big sound. Trifonov also has large hands and long fingers (as did Liszt, a feature that was often remarked upon by other pianists, with some jealousy). With such tools Trifonov is able to tell an audience: “look, this music is very hard…but don’t worry. I am able to make it sound easy.” That he did. Moreover, taking Trifonov’s programming decisions as an indication, there is a keen intelligence directing those fingers.

The concert opened with J. S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542) as arranged by Liszt. The playing was brilliant, if sometimes a bit rushed. Trifonov had total control and understanding of the material, the pianississimo touch he used at the opening of the fugue was quite ravishing, and his intricate full- and half-pedaling most impressive.

Trifonov was no less impressive negotiating the technical challenges of the next piece, Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111. He seemed to grasp the complex structure of this revolutionary work that, despite its nominal two-movement structure, is essentially a single movement sonata. Written between 1821 and 1822, it anticipated and influenced works that followed, such as Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor (1853). In fact, if you didn’t already know that the music you were hearing was by Beethoven, you might have thought you had bought a ticket to an all-Liszt concert—especially the way Trifonov played it.

The second half of the concert, however, was really all-Liszt: the complete Transcendental Études, S. 139. These 12 works of terrifying difficulty strike fear into the hearts of most pianists—but obviously not Trifonov, who tossed them off with aplomb. Yet something was not quite right. By the sixth etude quite a few people in the audience were fidgeting and checking their watches. Almost 90 minutes of études is a bit too much of a good thing, and neither Liszt nor any 19th-century composer of études expected an entire set to be played all at once—in public! The larger issue though, was despite plenty of effect in Trifonov’s performance, there was not enough affect. To project to an audience, even the most virtuoso and musical of pianists must evoke the extramusical, and make the fingers tell the tale, spin the narrative or show the visual images embodied in these remarkable works.

This was not true of all of Trifonov’s performance of the études—some, like “Feux follets” (no. 5) sent thousands of sparkling images throughout the hall—but in general the audience seemed to be thinking: more poetry, please, and/or fewer etudes. Yet even those peeking discreetly at their smartphones couldn’t take their eyes off of the dashing young man with the long flying fingers who gave us an object lesson in piano virtuosity. Live long and prosper, Daniil Trifonov. I look forward to hearing you again.

Mark Kroll’s next tours take him to Montreal, London and Paris. In March he will begin recording the complete harpsichord works of François Couperin.


  1. Mark Kroll captures the essence of this concert as perfectly as one could imagine: tours de force are impressive, but at the end of the day, the affect needs to outweigh the effect. But, let’s have more of this brilliant young man, especially as he matures into the pianist one can easily imagine he will become.

    Comment by Brian Jones — March 16, 2015 at 4:39 am

  2. With the greatest respect for two wonderful musicians and their ears, I’ll confess I’m puzzled by the review and first comment. The problem is that I can’t remember a single recent piano performance with more affect, more poetry and distinctive ideas – forget about the thrilling execution – than Daniil Trifonov’s recital last Friday night.

    At no time in the Bach-Liszt, Beethoven, Liszt, or Medtner (I wonder if the reviewer lingered for the luminous encore) did I sense even a whiff of virtuosity for its own sake on the part of the pianist, even during certain études when it might have loomed large in Franz Liszt’s intention. Rather, it seemed to me that all of the pianist’s forces were marshalled to a single, elevated purpose: relating the story he divined in each piece as vividly as possible, with absolute, spiritualizing conviction.

    Like all great artists, Trifonov’s is a singular imagination, though – his narrative of Op. 111 was unlike any other I’ve heard, with a spaciousness in the Arietta that I’d have thought impossible to plausibly maintain. (He also knew how to swing the boogie woogie variation as few have!) Everything was rendered with a rare and utterly compelling sincerity whose alchemical transmutation into sound was, to my ears, the true tour de force here.

    Such was the case as well back in October, 2012, when the 21 year old’s Boston debut included a transcendent Scriabin 3rd Sonata and glittering Debussy Images bookending a symphonic account of the Firebird excerpts. Even in the Op. 25 Études of Chopin, though, poetry continually trumped digital display, with many breathtaking instances where the pianist found unexpected, if not unprecedented, beauties.

    One final observation: although I noticed not a single member of the audience fidgeting nor checking a wristwatch during the Liszt, it may have been due to my own transfixion within Trifonov’s astonishing soundscape. Still, I readily take the reviewer’s point that S. 139 is best appreciated in smaller doses – the only quibble I’d have with the program. Unlike Mr. Kroll, though, I heard the artist evoke the extramusical in every single étude, and I very much doubt we would have heard more in any of them had the pianist elected merely to offer one or two. I’d add that the ones which to my ears best succeed as works of art – including Mazeppa, Feux follets, Harmonies du soir, and Chasse-neige – were also Trifonov’s greatest achievements.

    One thing on which we all appear to agree: this pianist is for real, and we’re eager to hear more.

    Comment by nimitta — March 17, 2015 at 11:00 am

  3. The Liszt Transcendental Etudes complete run about 70 minutes or a bit less. The recording by Claudio Arrau, justly famous for his slow tempos, runs 66:32. Others: Berman, 63:22; Perl, 69:40; Duchable, 55:38. I hope Trifinov didn’t seem like 90!

    Comment by Nick Altenbernd — March 17, 2015 at 11:56 am

  4. This local notable remains the gold standard for some of us older concertgoers, from 40 years ago, 75′ and not slow:

    Comment by David Moran — March 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

  5. Trifonov’s TEs definitely didn’t feel like 90 minutes to me, Nick. I’d guess he clocked in pretty close to Berman – at Carnegie Hall he came in around 64′, although interestingly the performance (viewable at is frequently ‘off’ in many of the places where it was so ‘on’ at Jordan Hall.

    And kudos to Lexington’s own Russell Sherman and his two recordings aside, for me the gold standard in most of these pieces has long been Lazar Berman, both live and recorded. Talk about poetic virtuosity!

    Comment by nimitta — March 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

  6. The photo in the article definitely shows something marked ff- whether it’s effect, affect or effort is for those who were there to say.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 17, 2015 at 2:05 pm

  7. Effect vs. Affect. I couldn’t help but feel slightly wronged on the pianist’s behalf after reading this statement. He summoned the “extra-musical” for the majority of the night, I personally thought the piano wasn’t helping Liszt’s transcription of the Bach, but that is a digression. He drew the audience in with his ephemeral pianissimos and weaved quite the convincing story line in all of his pieces. His performance of the Op. 111 was/is unforgettable (all the colors he evoked… stunning and very refreshing). The reason I say there was affect a plenty is because I found myself impressed/captivated by the pianist’s musicality. His technique is obviously impeccable, but that merely means his musicality isn’t hindered by the physical aspects of piano playing. Perhaps why people were so fidgety in the audience was because people coughed obnoxiously during the magical moments and shattered the atmosphere with three horribly timed cell phone ringtones (yes, obnoxious enough to keep count). It takes a tremendous amount of focus to be able to play the Transcendental Etudes back to back, but it also takes a considerable amount of focus to appreciate all 12 etudes as a set (especially as the 2nd half of a concert). The pianist held up his end and created an atmosphere that was as inspiring as it was intimate, perhaps the audience wasn’t as receptive as they should have been.

    Comment by Roo-Ra Lee — March 18, 2015 at 5:28 pm

  8. Mark Kroll is a harpsichordist. How can he talk about affect?

    Comment by denovo2 — March 18, 2015 at 6:08 pm

  9. I mostly agree with Mark Kroll. The performance of Op. 111 was brilliant but incomplete. The dynamic range was unbelievable, the clarity in hammering octaves thrilling, the incredible detail and sensitivity of phrasing in the long flowing lines of the last variation of the Arietta far beyond mere virtuosity. I almost laughed aloud several times at the cleverness of some new revelation, a phrase within a phrase.
    Yet it seemed episodic, the variations independent and disjoint, without the sense of measured, continuous development that is so essential to this sonata. The theme of the Arietta was played very, very slowly, too slowly to avoid a sense of stopping and starting, and the tempo of the rest of the movement didn’t seem to flow from it. The third variation, which alternates between p and f in the score, with many sf’s, seemed to alternate between f and fff (it presumably dropped to p occasionally, at which point it was probably too soft to hear). I don’t remember ever hearing banging in this movement before, but I heard it Friday night. Trifonov seemed to think this was some sort of climax, which I think is a complete misunderstanding.
    In the Maesto there were many expressive pauses; in the first few bars it seemed like every rest became a fermata, as if the pianist thought that creating an air of portent was his responsibility, rather than the composer’s. I wonder if this is the way Liszt played Beethoven.
    In the Liszt Trifonov was much more in his element; the pieces were again episodic, but then they’re written that way. He has of course spectacular technique, and revels in it, but he always seemed to know its role in the music and pursued the accumulation of effects into a musical whole. If there was a problem with this part of the program it was in the programming; I agree with the suggestion that a whole set of études at one sitting is a bit much for a concert performance.
    As for the first piece, I am happy to blame Liszt rather than Trifonov for what was done to Bach. Parts of it were quite beautiful, as the parson said of his egg, but I think those were the Bach parts. I would even say they were affecting, but Bach, of course, was a harpsichordist, and thus apparently without affect.

    Comment by SamW — March 18, 2015 at 9:29 pm

  10. With all of this brouha, and having missed the event, I went and listened to some of Trifonov’s December Carnegie Hall recital, and at least the S.542 Fugue (less Lisztian) is altogether outstanding in clarity and forward motion, with every difficult turn nearly at the Heiller level of rhythmic strength:

    6:17ff @

    So superior in these respects is it to the last handful of Bach piano recitals I’ve heard locally by nominal specialists, yeah, I very much want to hear the kid when he returns.

    Comment by David Moran — March 18, 2015 at 11:22 pm

  11. I always think it’s a bad sign when a young pianist prefers Bach-Busoni or Bach-Liszt to Bach, as if afraid to untie the nineteenth-century apron strings.

    Comment by SamW — March 19, 2015 at 7:49 am

  12. This is probably the first time this spring that we met a true genius, a demon! After an array of tepidly good concerts that was just a storm! Yes, the public in Boston likes to do a standing ovation, but here people were literally leaping from their seats in ecstasy.
    I think his Bach was reminiscent of Ivo Pogorelich’s playing, no less. His Beethoven was excellent and for such a popular piece that was played by every major pianist it is normal to have differences of opinions.
    But it is his Liszt that was absolutely jaw-dropping. The Ricordanza was just mesmerizing, and anyway to see him changing moods, tempos in such extremes was just sheer magic.
    Certainly Daniil wanted to impress the audience, he is young and full of energy, and I doubt the Etudes can be so easily played in their entirety with such ferociousness by an older performer. Of course a second part of his concert could include a few of the Etudes and say, a Sonata by Scriabin, for example, to link him to his Russian roots, but for a genius of this caliber everything is allowed.
    Last year he astonished us in Boston Symphony, and we came to this concert with great expectations that he easily exceeded. What a miracle, we hope he will continue to dazzle people around the world with his magnificent art. Bravo, Daniil!

    Comment by Leda Lebedkina — March 20, 2015 at 12:38 pm

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