A Gentle Tchaikovsky Gold Medalist

by Sedgwick Clark

Daniil Trifonov is a diplomat at the keyboard, not a pounder. We’re so used to powerhouse Russian pianists that the slight young man who bounded onstage Tuesday evening for his Carnegie Hall recital debut and proceeded to caress the keys took at least one listener by surprise. Winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions, he has the all-powerful Valery Gergiev in his corner and encomiums from several distinguished fellow pianists. He has recorded a Chopin CD for Decca and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Gergiev for the Mariinsky label. A recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon was announced today, beginning with the release of this concert (2/6).

This one-man jury was out in the recital’s first half. As in the case of another of his generation’s pianistic talents of slight build, Yuja Wang, who made her Carnegie Hall recital debut last season, I wondered how wise it is to rush accomplished yet unformed artists into such prominent venues. Scriabin’s Second Sonata didn’t seem ideally arresting for Trifonov’s recital opener, although the heavily Russian audience probably disagreed. And Liszt’s half-hour Sonata in B minor, with which Wang concluded her recital last season, is difficult to make cohere under any circumstances, at any age. Its fireworks are irresistible to young artists, but its dangers are manifold. In my concert experience, Arrau and Brendel conquered it masterfully; under Horowitz it fell apart. Trifonov simply lacked the requisite weight.

The recital’s second half, the Chopin Preludes, was something else. Again and again, one warmed to his light tone and simple, unsentimental, poetic – and eminently satisfying — approach. The little A major Andantino, which many cannot resist personalizing (Arrau is laughable on his Philips recording), was played in a single lambent breath – perfection! The varying moods of the “Raindrop” were superbly rendered. And in the final Prelude in D minor, Trifonov threw caution to the winds with impassioned turbulence.

Undoubtedly an artist to watch.


Hollywood has never been lacking for howlers, and one of my favorites is in the film Deception (1946), starring Bette Davis, Paul Henried as a cellist she loves, and Claude Rains as a jealous composer named Alexander Hollenius. After a rehearsal for the composer’s new concerto (by Korngold, actually), a reporter asks the cellist to name his favorite contemporary composers, and he replies thoughtfully, “Well, let me see. Stravinsky, when I think of the present. Richard Strauss, when I think of the past. And, of course, Hollenius, who combines the rhythm of today with the melody of the past.”

I was reminded of this line the other day by a press release for an upcoming Decca CD by Nicola Benedetti called “The Silver Violin,” featuring Korngold’s Violin Concerto and numerous short pieces focusing “on the timeless music of the silver screen.” A Gramophone reviewer stated that “Benedetti need not fear comparison with the likes of Shaham, Mutter and Laurent Koscia . . . .” Laurent who? I wonder if the reviewer ever heard of Jascha Heifetz, who gave the work’s premiere in 1947 and whose 1953 RCA recording is still considered peerless by most critics?

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

2/7 at 7:30. Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Andris Nelsons; Christian Tetzlaff, violin. Dvorák: The Noon Witch. Brahms: Violin Concerto. Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra.

2/12 at 7:30. Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Long Yu. Chinese New Year Celebration.

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