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Believe it or not, it wasn’t the piano that started virtuoso pianist Daniil Trifonov on his musical journey. “My parents never forced me to be introduced to piano,” the soft-spoken Russian tells me over the phone from Deutsche Grammophon’s office in Berlin. “Until the age of five, I never showed any signs of interest. We had an upright at the time but I was never exploring it.”
Both of Trifonov’s parents are musicians, so as a listener he was exposed to music early on. “My father is a composer. I remember some of the first music I heard was his works.” That music first sparked young Daniil’s interest. “At one point my father got a synthesiser for his compositional needs – a music keyboard – and that was something which was very consuming,” he explains. “It was this technological device which, for that time, posed a lot of wonders for me.”
Daniil Trifonov. Photo by Dario Acosta/DG
The synthesiser awakened something in the young Trifonov. “I started exploring it – pressing all the buttons – and then I became really interested in actually playing, and a couple of months later I was studying at the music school. It was not just music, but all sorts of arts as well. But music was something which was growing fastest. And also I started as a composer myself. I was just trying to improvise some pieces. That’s how it started.”
By the age of eight Trifonov was studying in Moscow with Tatiana Zelikman (one of whose students, Konstantin Shamray, won the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2008, he tells me). It was also at the age of eight that Trifonov performed his first concerto, an occasion rendered all the more memorable by the loss of a baby tooth during the performance. “It was the Mozart Concerto No 17 – in G Major – and somewhere towards the development I just felt the tooth coming out. It was quite annoying,” he says, “I just started concentrating on playing.”
Zelikman was to play a significant role in Trifonov’s development as a pianist, not least because of her formidable record collection. “At that time I started exploring a lot of recordings of other composers, thanks to Tatiana Zelikman,” he explains.
In her lessons, Zelikman would often present him with recordings of a piece recorded by different pianists – sometimes two or three recordings in a lesson. “A lesson would start with a student playing the piece and then she would give her detailed comments and work through the piece,” Trifonov explains. “After that work was done she would put on a few records. After listening to those records a student would have to play again the piece, but perform it from beginning to end. It was very interesting.”
Trifonov also remembers a course at Moscow’s famous Gnessin School of Music in which the students had to listen blind to a series of recordings. “In the classroom nobody knew – except for the teacher – who were the performers of the piece. We’d have to discuss the advantages of each recording, and then we would have to blind guess who could have been the performer of each.”
In 2009 Trifinov moved the USA to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “It was a big change but it was something I was looking forward to,” he says. “I wanted to have a new experience and I’d been a few times to the United States beforehand – I wanted to study in the country.” His former teacher, Zelikman, participated directly in Trifonov’s choice of teacher in the US. “She recommended me to study with Sergei Babayan,” he says. “I had never met him before the first lesson. Of course, when I moved to Cleveland I needed to learn English, as at that time I almost didn’t speak any. But over time, I became more accustomed to surroundings and spent five years there.”
It was success in a number of piano competitions that propelled the young pianist to international fame. “I haven’t participated in so many competitions,” he says. But there was one season that was particularly significant, when he competed in the International Chopin Piano Competition and then a few months later the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition and International Tchaikovsky Competition almost back to back. “Originally I wanted to participate in the Chopin competition,” he explains, “as at that time I was learning a lot of Chopin’s music. It was probably the most difficult of them all as it was the first really big competition I’d participated in.”
Nonetheless, Trifonov took out third place, while also winning the Polish Radio Special Prize for the best mazurka performance, before going on to win both the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, carrying off a swathe of prizes at both.
For Trifonov, however, it is not necessarily the prizes that are the most valuable thing to be gained from performing in competitions. “Competitions can help a lot of artists if the primary purpose of competing is to expand their repertoire,” he explains. “Of course, if while participating in many competitions there is not enough time for you to learn new pieces, then one of the biggest advantages is gone. So even, for instance, between the Chopin and Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, even though there was not so much time, my teacher in Cleveland encouraged me to learn as much new material as possible.”
There are also many life lessons to be learned from performing in such a high-pressure environment. “In the competitions there is a fairly elevated level of stress,” Trifonov says. “Everything happens very much in the moment and you have only one attempt. So in that sense it teaches a certain type of concentration and of focus, which later on can help in a concert.”
While Trifinov’s career escalated quickly following his competition wins, there was never a single moment when he decided that he would make playing the piano his career. “I liked listening to music and just playing new pieces,” he says, “to me it was something I enjoyed doing a lot. There was never really a long-term plan. I started playing concerts when I was 15 or 16 and at that time it was just new experiences. And then, of course, after the competitions the number of concerts increased, so it was a new challenge just to learn how to deal with time on a busy tour where I’m travelling a lot, a more hectic schedule.”
Photo by Dario Acosta/DG
Despite the demands of this schedule, Trifonov still manages to compose as well as perform, a passion that has continued from his early days at the synthesiser. He premiered his own Piano Concerto in E Flat Minor in April, 2014. The work – his largest orchestral composition to date – was commissioned by the Cleveland Institute of Music, who are keen to kick-start a new generation of composer virtuosos. “Performing currently takes the primary role while composition has always been a type of hobby,” Trifonov explains. “A situation when I have a need to express certain emotional ideas or reflections or reactions.”
Finding time to compose while on the road can be challenging, however. “That concerto took a lot of time to complete,” he remembers. “Just to do the orchestration, which is quite a time consuming process, sometimes I would have to orchestrate on the train between the cities where I was going to play. When I have time off or when I have vacations, that’s usually the ideal time to work on material, but compositional ideas don’t come on a schedule.” So what happens when inspiration strikes during a busy tour? “I try just to record it so I don’t forget it,” Trifonov explains, “and then later I come back and work on it.”
When he travels to Australia in March, Trifonov will be performing the First Concerto of another composer virtuoso – and one of Trifonov’s musical idols – Sergei Rachmaninov. “To me every concerto from Rachmaninov is a joy in its own way,” he says. “They’re very different, each of the concerti, and of course the First Concerto has a lot of significance. It had a lot of significance to Rachmaninov himself, who didn’t understand why his Second and Third concertos were much more popular. He was very fond himself of his First Concerto.”
“When he composed it he was very young,” the pianist continues, “and there was already so much mature material. The concerto has an incredible sincerity and poetry. At times there’s an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of texture, especially in the finale and the second movement, which has so much mystery in its harmonies and a lot of play of light and colours. It’s very illuminated in its harmonic language, the second movement.”
Trifonov will also be giving recitals in Australia, in which he pairs Schumann’s Kreisleriana – named for the character Johannes Kreisler, a wild character in Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffman’s novels – with a selection from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.
“In the context of this programme, one of the main links is polyphony,” Trifonov explains. “The Kreisleriana of Schumann is a deeply contrapuntal work. Kreisler himself, in the books of Hoffmann, was presented as a composer, conductor and an organist. That organist part is what we can very often hear in Kreisleriana. Bass octaves in the left hand, they evoke certain reminiscences of organ and, of course, the deeply polyphonic language of the piece itself.”
“I sort of combine it with the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, which are also a very interesting take on polyphony, but from another century, from a very different time. The Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich are one of his most personal statements as a composer and among the very best works he wrote for piano solo.”
With such a busy touring schedule and free moments and vacations filled with composing, I’m curious as to what Trifonov listens to in order to unwind. “Ah well, it depends.” he says. “Sometimes classical, sometimes jazz, sometimes progressive rock. There was a time when I was very interested in the music of King Crimson. That’s probably something that comes as a result of my father. At one point he was in a punk rock group called Grope in the mid ’80s.”
As a pianist, Trifonov works mainly in the classical realm, but has he ever returned to the sounds of the synthesiser that sparked his passion for music? “No, that was just the beginning,” he says. “But on a synthesiser you can create completely different sounds with the same key, just by pressing a few buttons – that’s something I try to do on the piano.”
Daniil Trifonov tours Australia, performing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House March 1 – 4, in recital at City Recital Hall March 6, with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at Perth Concert Hall March 10 – 11, in recital at Melbourne Recital Centre March 14, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne March 17 – 20.