At the CSO, a Pianist Shakes the Musical Universe With a Prokofiev Concerto and “Partita for Violin No. 3 in E Major”

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 29, 2023

He looks like he should still be at school, yet he plays with the commanding presence, exceptional technical facility and deep commitment a professional artist thrice his years would envy. He’s floppy haired, slightly built, yet he can bring power and richness to the boldest fortissimo passages, while his pianissimos are delicate whispers. He creates a furore wherever he plays, his concerts sell out in hours, his fans are many and wildly enthusiastic. Welcome to the world of Daniil Trifonov.

Not yet 30 (he was born in 1991), Daniil Trifonov is already well-established as one of the world’s greatest pianists, his reputation founded on astonishing, often jaw-dropping performances of Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Chopin which meld fearsomely impressive technique with a gilded, lustrous sound. Watch him perform and at times he seems almost possessed, demonically rising from the keyboard and plunging back into it with tremendous power and physical agility. He has stamina in spades, tempered by tenderness and sensitivity which allow him to shape and shade the music, creating unexpected nuances and colours, the beauty of his sound such that one forgets the piano has hammers. He has the fearless, gleaming virtuosity of Argerich or Kissin – audacious, bravura playing that combines intelligence with dexterity, all wrapped up in an extraordinary effortlessness and refinement which makes his colleagues and senior musicians pause and marvel.

Superlatives quickly become redundant when attempting to describe the pianistic feats of this young artist, winner in 2011 of both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein Competitions. Signed to Deutsche Grammophon since 2013, he already has an impressive array of recordings under his belt, and is in high demand all around the world.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 (arr. M. Pletnev for piano and orchestra) – II. Romanza: Larghetto

Hailing from Nizhny Novgorod in Russia, he has been playing the piano and composing since he was five years old. He made his orchestral debut at eight, an occasion memorable for the loss of one of his milk teeth during the performance! While studying at Moscow’s Gnessin School of Music, he listened to historic recordings of the great pianists from an earlier era, seeking inspiration and learning from recordings of Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Horowitz, Friedman and others from the golden age of piano playing. It’s no surprise that amongst his inspirations today are Martha Argerich, Grigory Sokolov and Radu Lupu. He seems to embody so many of their musical qualities, while also carving a very distinctive artistic identity and career of his own.

The vertiginous virtuosity of Liszt and Rachmaninoff suits this young artist and when paired with an orchestra in, for example, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, he dazzles and beguiles with his unaffected brilliance and vibrant tonal palette. But he’s no “faster-louder” virtuoso, traits which too often seem to be the less-than-unique selling points of today’s young lions and lionesses of the keyboard; his virtuosity is more subtle, veiled by his deft lightness of touch, his ability to guide the listener in the narrative of the music (he is the first pianist I’ve heard who made Liszt’s Transcendental Études sound not only, well, transcendental, but also brought meaning and storytelling to this suite of fiendishly complex pieces).

“Technique should always be at the service of the music of the composer, not just for the sake of affect.”
– Daniil Trifonov

Of course he’s right – and when you see and hear him play, you understand exactly what he means. Brilliance elides with sensuousness, fleet-fingered arpeggios and visceral, blistering octaves give way to ethereally whispered phrases and poetic poignancy; his is playing which thrills, surprises and delights.

He has yet to explore the wider and wilder shores of the pianist’s repertoire, but he’s still young and there’s plenty of time – and when he does it’s sure to be exciting and unexpected.

By the time this review is posted you will have just one more chance to catch a concert at Symphony Center that brings you into direct contact with absolute genius. And while that might sound like hyperbole I can assure you it is not. In fact, I advise you to beg, borrow (or maybe even steal) a ticket to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that features the 27-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in an electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s demonically difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, as well as the haunting, brilliantly realized world premiere of Bruno Mantovani’s “Threnos,” and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

I only heard Trifonov play live for the first time last year at Symphony Center and was completely blown away by his astonishing performance of a ferociously difficult solo concert that included works by Schumann, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

Daniil Trifonov is soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest conductor Marin Alsop and the CSO. (© Todd Rosenberg)

I have not stopped thinking about that performance. And now his breakneck rendering of the Prokofiev – in glorious synchrony with the virtuosic musicians of the CSO and guest conductor Marin Alsop – turns out to be an epic event. In fact, it was easily celebrated as such by the extended standing ovation that brought Trifonov back to the stage for a jewel-like encore performance of J.S. Bach’s Gigue from the “Partita for Violin No. 3 in E Major” (transcribed for piano by Sergei Rachmaninov, a composer whose work he recently recorded).

But before saying anything more about Trifonov there is a great deal to say about Mantovani’s “Threnos,” whose title – the Greek word for “lament” – is just one indication that this stunning, richly orchestrated, 17-minute piece was commissioned by the CSO (with support from the Pritzker Military Foundation) as part of the orchestra’s multifaceted commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice.

I would describe “Threnos” as the haunting aural anatomy of a battle. A friend called it “musical Cubism.” Both are accurate descriptions.

Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong is featured in the world premiere of Bruno Mantovani’s “Threnos” with Marin Alsop and the CSO. (© Todd Rosenberg)Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong is featured in the world premiere of Bruno Mantovani’s “Threnos” with Marin Alsop and the CSO. (© Todd Rosenberg)

It begins with the faintest, far-off sound of a drum that grows ever louder, closer and more insistent, until the strings and horns join in and build to a cacophonous frenzy. A great buzzing is created, and there is the thunder of timpani along with a sense of all the chaos and calamity that comes with war.

At moments there also are tense lulls, the sound of a flute, and then the nervous, angular hum of a violin (a superb solo turn by Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong). And then, briefly piercing the air, there is the sound of church chimes. The full violin section joins in with frantic bowing to create an eerie, tautly sustained crying effect. A distant horn sounds, and then the beats of the timpani begin to fade to silence.

All in all, this is an emotionally complex, vividly atmospheric, rhythmically evocative work that employs the full range of percussion, and brings to mind the often repeated adage that “War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” Although to be sure, there is not a single boring note to be heard here. “Threnos” deserves to become an instant (and sadly, continually relevant) classic.

Immediately following the debut of “Threnos” it was Trifonov’s turn to “attack” the Prokofiev concerto. And arriving onstage in an almost visibly coiled state, he clearly was ready to pull the pin on a staggering musical grenade.

The explosion that ensued is nearly impossible to describe in words. But to start it must be said that this performance required the intersection of several essential combustible elements.

First, of course, there is Prokofiev, who began writing the work in 1911, when he was barely 20, and finished it a decade later, at which time it had its world premiere by the CSO, with the composer himself as soloist (and with two monumental events – the Russian Revolution and World War I – behind him). A concerto of staggering power and imagination, it also is a potent reminder that Prokofiev, a master of conjuring achingly beautiful melodic lines and highly theatrical dynamics, has few equals among 20th century composers.

Guest conductor Marin Alsop congratulates composer Bruno Mantovani following the world premiere of Mantovani’s piece “Threnos” by Alsop and the CSO. (© Todd Rosenberg)Guest conductor Marin Alsop congratulates composer Bruno Mantovani following the world premiere of Mantovani’s piece “Threnos” by Alsop and the CSO. (© Todd Rosenberg)

Of course there also is the need for an orchestra of peerless virtuosity and a conductor of immense intensity (cue the CSO and Alsop, who forged a palpable connection with Trifonov throughout). And finally there is the rare soloist whose emotional fire miraculously flows through his body, his brain and his near superhuman fingers, and who is capable of sweeping the keyboard with precision-tooled gale force at one moment, the subtlest, almost jazz-tinged passage at another, and a fierce yet lyrical fury at others. Watch Trifonov’s long, powerful fingers at work and you will see a magical choreography all its own.

There is more to say about every aspect of his performance, but words cannot come close to capturing the experience of listening to it.

The second half of the program begins with English composer Frank Bridge’s very brief, elegiac “Lament” for string orchestra, inspired by the death of more than a thousand passengers on the Lusitania, the great ocean liner sunk when it was hit by German torpedoes in 1915. And then it’s on to Copland’s Symphony No. 3, a work fully in the American grain that was written at the end of World War II and premiered in 1946, just two years after he composed “Appalachian Spring,” his iconic score for choreographer Martha Graham.

At moments throughout the symphony you can hear that wide open prairie sound which is so emblematic of Copland. But along with that spirit of clarity and determined optimism, the sense of forward momentum, and the triumphant sound of trumpets and clashing cymbals there also is a lyrical, aching undertow and dissonance at work.

The moods shift, from jaunty to elegiac, and along the way Copland quotes from his own “Fanfare for the Common Man,” initially written to mark America’s entry into World War II. You hear that now – at such a troubled and troubling moment in our country’s history – and it almost rekindles hope.


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