Trifonov’s defiant, authoritative Prokofiev takes the prize in streaming program

Mon Feb 22, 2021 at 12:12 pm
Daniil Trifonov performed a streamed concert Sunday night.

Even globe-trotting pianists have had their touring plans curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic. Daniil Trifonov made his solo program for the Shriver Hall Concert Series virtual, recorded at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. In a conversation following the broadcast of this streamed concert Sunday evening, the Russian virtuoso spoke briefly of the main positive development for him from the past year: the birth of his six-month-old son.

Trifonov undertook two of the pieces on this hour-long program for the first time during the last year. In Debussy’s suite Pour le piano, he missed some of the dream-like details of the piece due to an impatient approach, especially in the first movement. The middle section of this movement, otherworldly in character because of the composer’s use of the whole-tone scale, sailed by somewhat glibly, as did the cadenza section toward the end.

A velvet-gloved touch brought extraordinary beauty of phrasing and luscious softness to the middle movement. Trifonov was again perhaps too quick to rush past the bell-like dyads of the middle section, likely an approximation of the sound of the gamelan that so impressed the composer. Little if any extra time was taken at any of the several fermatas, for example. While these first two movements amount to more in the hands of more subtle pianists, Trifonov excelled in the “Toccata” finale with unassailable technical polish. 

At the end of the recital came a broad-shouldered, ultra-romantic reading of the Piano Sonata No. 3 of Brahms, the one in F Minor and not the Piano Sonata No. 1 listed in the program. The success in this piece came in the application of expansive rubato, which allowed even the largest textures, clearly and thoughtfully voiced, to breathe. The dulcet second theme was a highlight of the first movement, in spite of some video glitches at around the one-hour mark.

The first slow movement of this five-movement sonata beguiled with charming innocence, especially the second of its two main themes, in D-flat major and marked “Poco più lento” at its first appearance. A devilish wink marked the Scherzo movement, a sly triple-meter dance matched by an utterly mellow Trio. With unflappable concentration Trifonov held the mournful Intermezzo, an extended funeral march, at a stately tempo.

Force never flagged in the finale, as Trifonov kept some gas in the tank for every time Brahms cranked up the intensity through so many markings of “agitato” and “molto agitato” and multiple accelerations of tempo. The firm power of Trifonov’s attack rendered this dramatic conclusion with broad orchestral scope, made possible by the careful building of sound throughout.

In the conversation after the concert, Trifonov said that his history with the middle work on the recital, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Op. 17, goes back to his younger years in Russia. The set of five bittersweet character pieces features on Trifonov’s latest recording, devoted to Russian composers and released last November. This live performance impressed with its authoritative accuracy and its interpretative acumen, and the recorded version sets a standard by which to measure interpretations of these biting, sardonic works.

Pointed accents, jagged motifs, and motoric repetitions layered on top of one another in the brutal first piece, a reminder that Prokofiev was writing these works around the same time as Stravinksy was premiering Rite of Spring. Trifonov allowed almost no time between pieces, giving the listener little chance to adjust as the mood shifted.

No detail escaped Trifonov’s notice, with some Faustian story-telling guiding the second piece. The repeated thirds in the third piece, an ostinato motif that recalls Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata in some ways, pulsated with blinding speed.

Voicings of internal melodies amid hammered polychords glistened in the fourth piece, lyricism woven into hollow percussive thuds. The range of wild colors only broadened in the fifth piece, an astounding, furious toccata marked “Precipitosissimo” that also explores mystical dissonance clusters and time shifts in ways that sound startlingly forward-looking: the star-pocked visions of Messiaen came to mind.

This concert can be streamed through February 28.

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