When Daniil Trifonov walked onto the Baker-Baum Concert Hall stage Thursday night, it wasn’t easy. He had to weave through a fair number of concert attendees — lucky folks put there to accommodate the size and appetite of an audience almost literally bursting with excited anticipation.
Everything about the Russian-born pianist seems big. His awards and accolades, the scope of his repertoire, his explosive playing — all these have elicited breathless superlatives from novices and experts alike. His program, part of the La Jolla Music Society’s impressive Piano Series, was, appropriately, massive, more than two hours of some of the most difficult music in the literature, virtually all of it performed with deep artistry and astounding technique.
The demands of Tchaikovsky’s “Children’s Album” are expressive as much as technical. Tchaikovsky is at all times a storyteller, and each of these little vignettes — all 24 of them — narrates a different moment of childhood experience. Trifonov imbued them with finely wrought affective identity. He uncovered hidden layers of meaning, as in the melody of an otherwise innocuous waltz that follows on the heels of the death of a favorite doll, which he played with a stumbling and muffled, almost choked, right hand. His control over tempo and pacing is remarkable, and despite the number of chapters in Tchaikovsky’s tale, there was an unflagging focus and attention to detail.
Schumann’s 1839 “Fantasie” is, by itself, monumental, confronting the performer with a wild landscape of ideas — some of them almost violent in their expression — and heavy technical demands. Trifonov was thrilling here, exploring the ranges of Schumann’s psychological states through his own extremes of dynamics, tempo and physical commitment.
Trifonov has the ability to control resonance and pianistic color in a way that recalls both Horowitz and Pogorelich, the latter of whom made an important recording of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit” in the 1980s. Trifonov’s reading of Ravel’s masterwork, which renders three musical scenes from poems by Aloysius Bertrand, focused most on the virtuosic aspect of the work. The third movement, “Scarbo,” represents a dancing, devilish goblin, and is, famously, one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire, a fact to which Trifonov responded with an aptly fiendish tempo, careening through Ravel’s textures with an abandon that at times traded accuracy for adrenaline, but whose incandescent energy was undeniable.
The only piece in which Trifonov’s approach — resonance-rich, pedal-heavy and atmospheric — felt out of place was Mozart’s C-minor “Fantasia,” KV 475. This music was written literally before the piano Trifonov played and the manner in which he played it were invented. Sadly, important lines slipped beneath the surface, and the syntax of phrases was often steamrolled beneath the otherwise impressive bravura technique.
His aggressive and color-focused style found a better partner in Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 5.” Scriabin’s music, like that of so many others at the beginning of the 20th century, is a swirling mass of influences and has aesthetic cognates in the visual arts of the time: just as proto-abstraction burned away at representation in the art of Kandinsky and others, so too did the hold of functional harmony loosen its grip on the music of a new age, as spiritual influences and new directions in psychology open the pathway for bravely modern ideas, images and sounds. Scriabin was a philosopher as well as a composer, and his 10 sonatas for piano show his evolution from a dutiful student of Chopin’s music into a luminous visionary of new colors and harmonies. Here, Trifonov was really in his virtuoso element: creating sonic nebulas of pedaled clusters of pitches one moment and thunderous scalar runs the next, as he pivoted easily and purposefully between the barely audible and the apocalyptic.
In a striking shift of tone, his encore was the chorale from Bach’s cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” better known to us as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in the beloved transcription by Dame Myra Hess. Played with a solemnity and Trifonov’s uncanny gift for shaping pianistic sonority, this served as a gentle benediction to a thrilled and grateful audience.
Schulze is a freelance writer.