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.