Artist of the Year:
Daniil Trifonov

By Stuart Isacoff

In Trifonov’s hands, every note [of Mozart’s K. 488] seems filled with meaning. The music’s character becomes by turns charming assertive, playful, and confessional. Says former New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert, the pianist is “unique and compelling—a
once-in-a-generation phenomenon.”

2019 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta/Deutsche Grammophon

Among the dozens of YouTube offerings showcasing Daniil Trifonov—Musical America’s Artist of the Year—there is a stunning performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488, filmed at the finals of the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv in 2011. In Trifonov’s hands, every note seems filled with meaning. The music’s character becomes by turns charming, assertive, playful, and confessional. The slow movement ends with a series of fragile, sustained tones, as if, choked with emotion, the narrator simply could not continue. Mozart wrote those halting phrases, but it is Trifonov who transforms them into metaphorical sighs.

Daniil Trifonov went on to win the Rubinstein Competition’s top prize (and the audience award as well). Later that same year he took both first place and a special Grand Prix award—given to the best performer among all the entrants in any instrumental category—at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (he also was the audience choice once again). Those victories proved life-changing.

"You knew how special he was from the first minute"
As it happened, Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s artistic director, was on the Tchaikovsky’s cello jury, and he heard the pianist during the course of the competition. “You knew how special he was from the first minute,” Gillinson recalls. “When the event was over, I spoke to conductor Valery [Gergiev] and said we have to get him into the Hall as soon as possible. Trifonov had already performed in the Recital Hall, with violinist Yury Revich. But none of us had heard him as a soloist. Now that I had, it was clear he was someone who should be at the center of Carnegie Hall’s activities for decades to come. We managed to get him in on one of Gergiev’s concerts in October, just months after the Tchaikovsky. I was told that he had been warned not to enter the Tchaikovsky after winning the Rubinstein—that the repertoire was entirely different, and it was too risky. It makes these achievements even more colossal.”

Professional colleagues have been equally impressed. Before long, the pianist was programming his own Carnegie Hall “Perspectives” series, performing with all of the “big five” orchestras (New York, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago), and signing an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Working with Trifonov, says former New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert, has “been magic. I find it difficult to describe, but he is so unique and compelling—a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, I think.”

His special qualities are indeed a challenge to put into words. “He has a way of bending time,” notes Gilbert. “You could call it expressive rubato, but that sounds so pedestrian. It’s as if time flows in a different way for him. But that’s a dangerous way to describe it, because his rhythm is crystal clear and logical, yet never inevitable. I always feel challenged when I work with him, like I have to ‘up’ my game—it means a lot when he says he is happy with the result. There are some soloists you have to follow, speeding up or slowing down to keep in sync, which creates a feeling of self-consciousness, but that doesn’t arise with Daniil.” In other words, Trifonov makes the collaboration feel utterly natural.

Daniil Trifonov was born in 1991 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. His early training was at Moscow’s Gnessin School for young, gifted musicians, where he studied piano with Tatiana Zelikman. When it came time to move on, in 2009, Zelikman suggested that he study with pianist Sergei Babayan, who was at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The two had never met. “He called me,” remembers Babayan, “and when I inquired why he wanted to study with me he replied, ‘because I trust my teacher.’ I liked that answer.”

Why Cleveland?
Babayan wasn’t the only one who questioned the match. “Some of his supporters told him he should be in New York, and at that time I was not yet at the Juilliard School,” says Babayan. “ ‘Why Cleveland?’ they asked him. ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘Babayan will teach me the crucial elements.’ I wondered how he came up with that language. It turns out that he found it through Google.”

When they got together it was the teacher’s turn to provide some answers. “I knew the school would be willing to offer a small scholarship,” he says. But he also knew that the amount would have been insufficient, so he went to see the Institute’s then-president, Joel Smirnoff, with several recordings of Trifonov in hand: the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto; a piece by Chick Corea called Afterthought, commissioned by the San Marino Piano Competition in 2008 (Trifonov won that competition, as well as an award for best performance of the Corea); and Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4. “You have to hear him,” announced Babayan. Smirnoff selected the Chopin. “I pressed the button,” recalls Babayan. “He listened to one page and said, ‘We’ll give him a full scholarship.’ ”

At their first lesson, the teacher assigned several works by Chopin, and by the time of their next meeting, Trifonov had memorized them all. Soon after, he declared his desire to enter the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which was to take place the following year—something that normally requires three or four years of preparation. Babayan was willing, with one reservation: He insisted that his student not include any repertoire that he had previously performed. Trifonov agreed, entered, and won third place. Babayan maintains his protégé was actually the best in the contest and says that some expert observers, including jury member Martha Argerich, agreed. But the young pianist was quite happy. “It was the most stressful competition I ever entered—there were 20 performers in the first round, so I felt lucky to make it through,” he says. “We had only 15 or 20 minutes to play, and it is difficult to get settled in such a short amount of time. You barely start and it ends.”

An aesthetic outlook stressing communicativeness and taste
Tatiana Zelikman was prescient. In the end, Babayan’s aesthetic outlook—stressing both communicativeness and taste—perfectly suited the young Russian’s. “I want the piano to speak like the human voice,” explains the teacher. Beyond mere mechanical execution, this requires insight into the particular qualities that distinguish a composer’s vernacular: “Horowitz said you should play Mozart with the sensitivity of Chopin, and Chopin with the simplicity of Mozart. In other words, Chopin should be pure and classical, Mozart more sensual and romantic.” Trifonov’s prize-winning accounts of Chopin and Mozart were shaped by such ideas, along with a tireless search for the technical means to achieve them.

Though in time the pupil outgrew the need for a master, the two remain close. “I heard him perform the Rachmaninoff First Piano Sonata,” recounts Babayan of Trifonov. “I swore I was in the presence of a great Russian aristocrat, one who understood Rachmaninoff’s meaning and Russian culture very deeply. There are some former students you hear after five years, and feel embarrassed. With Daniil you know that if tomorrow you no longer exist he will still have that fire, self-discipline, and self-criticism that makes for a great artist.” 

Trifonov lives and breathes music. During our interview he would at times respond to a question by silently moving his fingers, internally scrutinizing the experience of creating a specific sound. Finding the right means of tonal production is an ongoing process for him. His teachers in Russia and America shared similar goals, he says, but differed in their views of such aspects of performance as the way the hand behaves, and exactly how the fingers should strike the keys.

Repertoire plays a large role in those decisions. At the Gnessin School he played mostly Chopin, then Scriabin and Schumann, while undergoing a rigorous program in various aspects of musicianship. “In the last year,” he admits, “we had to take difficult dictation, listening to and writing down six-voice harmonies based on Scriabin’s Prometheus score. That was quite a challenge. . . . When I moved to Cleveland I focused more on Rachmaninoff’s music, which requires flexible shoulders and the engagement of the entire upper half of the body. But creating the right sound means hearing it in the mind first, after which you try a lot of physical experimentation. For example, I practiced the opening of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto in a swimming pool. This may seem not very practical, but actually it was.

“By imagining a keyboard in the pool and moving your arms through the water, one becomes very aware of the distances between notes—realizing what effort it takes to travel from one point to another. Singers can’t simply jump across a large span—they must facilitate the journey. On the piano, leaping across registers is too easy—it requires less effort and, as a result, involves less awareness.” 

He engaged in another experiment in the mechanics of piano technique using recording equipment. Pressing the keys using a variety of touches, he noted the differences in the way the audio waves showed up graphically: Sometimes the shape would be spikey, at other times, smoother. For a cantabile sound, “It helps to have a kind of diagonal touch that does not involve the tips of the fingers.” 

This physical sensibility must serve a musical end, of course—harnessed to bring out a work’s emotive resonance. “I often close my eyes when I practice,” Trifonov explains, “and then try to elicit different feelings from a particular phrase.” He takes his cue from the work of Russian theatrical director Konstantin Stanislavski, whose acting “method” focused on “experiencing” a given role rather than merely “representing” it.

The pianist’s spirit of discovery is reflected in the adventurousness of his programs. Take his Carnegie Hall seven-concert “Perspectives” series, which included solo performances along with collaborations featuring Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra and cellist Gautier Capuçon; baritone Matthias Goerne; Sergei Babayan; and Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra. The music included both Chopin and seminal pieces from each decade of the 20th century, with works by Berg, Prokofiev, Bartók, Copland, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Adams, Corigliano, and Adès, along with original music by the pianist himself. (He recently toured his own Piano Concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra.) His fourth recording for Deutsche Grammophon, Chopin: Evocations, includes both of Chopin’s piano concertos in new arrangements by Mikhail Pletnev, rather than Chopin’s original orchestrations, as well as music by Barber and Mompou, composers heavily influenced by the Polish master. (Of Mompou, he says, “I love his use of silence.”) On ECM, he has recorded music for violin and piano of Mieczyslaw Weinberg with Kremer. He plans to offer more contemporary works in the future. 

Other offerings on the DG label include Transcendental, containing exquisite renderings of etudes by Liszt; Preghiera, an all-Rachmaninoff recital with Kremer and cellist Giedrè Dirvanauskaitè (“Preghiera” is actually Fritz Kreisler's arrangement for violin and piano of the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto); and Rachmaninoff Variations, featuring Trifonov’s own virtuoso composition, Rachmaniana, along with tour-de-force accounts of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin and his Variations on a Theme of Corelli for solo piano, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, performed with Yannick Nézet- Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Teaching is not on his agenda: “I did a couple of master classes,” he relates, “and found them emotionally draining. It’s difficult to convey everything in a single lesson, and you can’t predict where it will go for the students when there is no follow up.” Composing is a sideline, he says, something he does only when time allows. And time has become an issue.

He tries to limit his concertizing to 100 dates a year. Still, there is so much to do. “At the moment,” he says, “I have three days in New York, and have to use them to bring back the Scriabin Concerto and some chamber music, and to prepare my program for next season. I used to have summer vacations that lasted perhaps a month and a half, so I had time to learn new works. No more. Now I have to start pieces earlier, practicing five days here and four days there.”

What about taking the time simply to lie on a beach somewhere, I wonder. In response, he gives me a bemused look. It is hard to imagine Daniil Trifonov on a beach, or anywhere else, without a piano in reach. •

Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Knopf).