Daniil Trifonov first impressed me with his studious approach: patient, measured and intense. Last night at Carnegie Hall we saw a different side when Trifonov played his own Piano Concerto in E-flat Major with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conducting. From the opening measures he was full of fired up energy, forceful, even ferociously aggressive. Instead of the staid, stiff figure on the piano bench, we saw a slim-bounding player leaping into crescendos, sometimes fighting the full orchestra, at other times joining them in a cascade of sounds. Wildness in playing and wildness in the music made for a thrilling performance in the great tradition of Russian music.
This was the New York premier of this, his First Piano Concerto. The first of three movements was exhaustive enough. The next two offered more quiet passages and a few introspective one, but introspection was infrequent. Trifonov is good at sharing the limelight with soloists in the brass, woodwind and strings. He uses the bass and horns to introduce new ideas that are taken up by the woodwinds drawing attention to how the strains of one can meld into the strains of the other, an act of humility as he treats the orchestra not an accompanist to his playing but almost the reverse—his piano becomes part of the orchestra. His solo sections covered a wide spectrum of technically demanding bravura playing for which athletic youth would seem to be a prerequisite.
Questions will be asked as to whether this piece can be called modern. It is contemporary by definition, being composed within the last three to four years, but it sounds like a cross of Prokofiev, Liszt, and Stravinsky. I am sure more references can be found than one can pick up on a first hearing. The impact, however, is one of joyful, very Russian exuberance, boisterous, loud, and possibly intoxicated.
The Mariinsky is one of the first-rate orchestras; its conductor is legendary. They gave Trifonov’s piece a powerful voice. Trifonov set a high bar for subsequent pianists. One wonders how other pianists will deal with it.
Richard Strauss’ Don Juan preceded the Tifonov; Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony followed it. Both were apt and filled with similarities, such as the role of the brass, woodwinds, and base sections. The Sixth is full of Prokofiev’s familiar colors, somewhat subdued, and tempered with a sense of loss and mystery reflecting the political tension of the late Stalinist period.