Fast and loud wows the crowd. This might be the motto of Daniil Trifonov, who made his Tanglewood debut on Wednesday, July 12 at Seiji Ozawa Hall. He comes with impressive credentials: gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition, Deutsche Grammophon recording contract, and a career at 26 that would be the envy of most musicians. But I was not particularly wowed.
His recital began with more than an hour of Schumann. At first, in the familiar Kinderszenen, he made a favorable impression. His tone was rich and creamy, his tempi flexible but sensible. Repeats in “A Curious Story” were interestingly re-balanced. And he did a subtle job of keeping his hands very slightly out of sync; right leading the left, is a mannerism we hear in early recordings of 19th-century pianists in this repertoire. Even “Träumerei,” which we’ve all heard enough of, came across as somewhat fresh, muted and simple.
Eventually, though, things started going off the track. By “Frightening” and “Child Falling Asleep” Trifonov’s distortions of tempo were beginning to sound mannered and unconvincing. Then came the notorious finger-buster, Schumann’s Toccata. Trifonov took a blistering tempo and he seemed to be playing accurately. But with his excessive pedaling, it was hard to tell. The sensation of velocity is conveyed only partially by speed. Clarity of articulation also plays an important role. Of that there was very little. And some tricks with dynamics also got in the way.
Kreisleriana is big and wild enough to absorb some of Trifonov’s mannerisms, and there were sections that worked. Not the first, which was chaotic, nor the second, which was seriously muddied by too much pedal. The slow movements were generally most convincing. Elsewhere some of Trifonov’s freedom of tempo brought the music almost to a dead stop. This was a Kreisleriana of moments but not a convincing whole.
The best playing of the evening came in a selection of five of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues from Op. 87. Here Trifonov’s playing was generally quite expressive, and he seemed to realize that fugues simply demand clarity. He eased off the pedal enough so that I could hear everything most of the time. The fugue of No. 7, though, was blurry. And when the tempo of the fugue in No. 24 increases, I felt Trifonov exaggerated the change. Still, most of the time one could appreciate Trifonov’s decision to play this drastically under-exposed music, among the 20th century’s piano masterpieces.
Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka has been a hurdle for pianists since Artur Rubinstein decided he couldn’t play it. (Neither could Stravinsky, of course.) I don’t believe any pianist had the nerve to record it until Marcelle Meyer in the early 1950s. For generations the amazing Alexis Weissenberg set the standard with his recording. (I also heard him play it live, equally well.) But it seems to have become a challenge piece for the current generation of pianists, who, like current athletes, have improved on the past with superior training methods.
Trifonov began the “Russian Dance” at an outrageous tempo. Although he hit almost all of the notes, they sped by too fast for comprehension, sounding more like gibberish than Stravinsky. The suite went on with too much sonic and visual mugging for my taste, but fast and loud won the crowd and the large audience greeted the conclusion with the standard standing O. As an encore, Trifonov played a series of Variations on a Chopin Prelude by Mompou which sounded mostly like cocktail piano music (and the way the original Chopin was reharmonized in the theme statement was downright insulting).
A musician of Trifonov’s attainments and gifts should be playing on a higher level of artistry than what he displayed at Ozawa Hall. I sincerely hope he gets there.