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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Trifonov Entrances and Levitates at Carnegie Hall

REVIEW: Trifonov Entrances and Levitates at Carnegie Hall

FEBRUARY 12, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Daniil Trifonov's Carnegie Hall recital on Saturday night was an exhilarating ride. Armed with a substantial program of not often heard repertoire, and a fiercely original approach, this dazzling keyboard virtuoso spared no punches.

He enters the room as if in a trance, and indeed, played his opening piece, Beethoven's Andante favori, in a transfixed state. Originally intended as the slow movement for the Waldstein Sonata, the lyrical rondo is an exercise in subtle tonal control, and a supreme test of classical technique in service of Classical-period textures. Trifonov, drawing the audience in with whispered phrasing, made hay of the treacherous middle passage with right-hand octaves that move quickly, but need to sound elegant. 

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Photo: Fadi Kheir

In view of what Beethoven replaced it with, the piece is also a great example of composer as self-editor. (The final iteration, marked Introduzione -- an Adagio molto in simple ABA form -- is a mysterious reach into the void, a solemn pause for thought before the joyous release of the sizable C major Rondo that follows.) The Andante favori just wasn't right for it. But for Trifonov, it served as a thought provoking prelude to the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3, a sonata lacking a slow movement, after all. 

One of Beethoven's cheerier sonatas, it is nicknamed "The Hunt." It has a pastoral flavor and an undertone of humor, and is also the last of Beethoven's four-movement sonatas, the minuet being a relic of the earlier era. The origin of the name "The Hunt" is frequently associated with various of its themes resembling horn calls. But for me, the first movement has the very spirit of a hunt, or chase, as if a solid tonic chord in root position were scurrying around, only fleetingly coming into view before escaping again. 

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Trifonov played with great emphasis on Beethoven’s dramatic pauses. A flair for drama, as well as ambiguity, makes him a terrific Beethoven interpreter. He also chose breakneck tempos. He played the first movement as fast as one would dare, and the twisting turning scales perhaps suffered in purity, at the expense of a wind-swept whirl. The Gershwin-esque hemiola moment at the end of the exposition felt like a natural impetus of spontaneous pianism. His sweeping tempo paid off with zipping trills and a muscular left hand in the tricky-to-articulate development, played with deceptive grace and smoothness. The surprise return of the opening theme was slippery and magical.

The second movement, an exercise in left-hand staccato and counter-intuitive coordination, was so quick the details became awash in the hall. The performance had great dramatic flair, but chewed the scenery a bit. Trifonov caressed the Menuotto grazioso -- Beethoven at his most sincere -- with the pleading voice of a serenading operatic suitor, his left hand, the lagging, pulsing strings. The finale Presto con fuoco, a tarantella, was another high-octane affair.

In a potentially dicey move, Trifonov followed the Beethoven with a rarely played, and some might say inferior, Schumann collection, Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), basically a set of miscellany composed over a number of years. But there's great stuff in there, and as with most Schumann, wild mood swings and delicious tension. He played the first couple Stücklein with a spellbound sense of poetry. Later, the Chopin-esque Präludium exploded in a viscous torrent, like a chocolate fountain.

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Though the evening's rhetorical pull lulled in the latter third of the laborious Marsch (Schumann's fault), the following Abendmusik, full of delightful flights of fancy, was played with a lithe sense of whimsy. The next piece, a bedeviled Scherzo, was a tad too windswept for my taste, but enviable in the facility required to whip up such a frenzy with Schumann's staid piano scoring. A generous freedom of tempo helped, most of all. The set's finale, Geshwindmarsch, took to the gale-force winds more naturally, and Schumann's particular genius cut through the air like a laser, never more apparent. The Presto passionato in G Minor, another piece intended as a sonata movement, yet left on the cutting-room floor, is a dazzling showpiece, and tailor-made for Trifonof's sashay down the runway. He lurches, he levitates, he has his way with the score, and the instrument, too.

The second half of the program went down a very different road, consisting, exactly like Yuja Wang's recital last year, entirely of Prokofiev's Eighth Piano Sonata. Both pianists played the first movement with a broad sweep, Prokofiev's collection of haunting thematic germs seeming to express the sheer variety of the human experience, violence and peace. Where Wang played the ironic, Neo-classical second movement romantically, Trifonof went with a more traditional, drier approach. (It's better that way.) And the triumphant finale was a dazzling adventure-ride. 

He played two contrasting encores, a selection of Prokofiev's eviscerating Sarcasms, and returning to the hypnotized entrancement with which he began the evening, Alfred Cortot's arrangement of the third movement of Chopin's Cello Sonata. 

Photo: Fadi Kheir

Photo: Fadi Kheir

The recital was filmed for live broadcast on medici tv, and preserved for posterity. I wondered, especially when his tempos didn't seem to take into account the room's acoustics, if he was playing as much for the cameras as the back row of the balcony. But, as one of the great pianists in the age of Instagram and Youtube, Trifonov put his choices across convincingly, thrilling in the moment, and even more enjoyable on second viewing.

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