City Recital Hall, Sydney
March 6, 2017

Daniil Trifonov, one of the hottest new piano talents, turned 26 the day before this recital took place. What he will be like in ten years is anybody’s guess. At the moment he is phenomenal.

The first half of the concert was all music of Robert Schumann: two sets of pieces from 1838, Kinderszehen (Scenes from Childhood), and Kreisleriana. Between these, Trifonov plunged into the earlier Toccata. With a minimum of fuss (quick entrances and exits to the platform; no gaps between movements), the pianist covered the innate and often extreme contrasts of character that permeate Schumann’s music, sometimes even in the same piece – such as Fürchtenmachen (Frightening) from Kinderszehen with its sudden bursts of activity. Trifonov’s pianism was limpid in the famous Träumerei (Dreaming) from the same work, lovingly inward and hushed in Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep). In this opening set, Trifonov showed himself to be a true poet.

The more extrovert Kreisleriana brought out the virtuoso side to his playing: the rapid fugato in No 7 was electric; the stately theme of No 2 beautifully weighted to produce a bell-like tone. Moreover, Trifonov (much like Schumann himself) switched from one mood to another in a split second, showing extraordinary control along with his technical brilliance and poetic imagination. The relentless Toccata, Schumann’s challenging tribute to Bach, showcased the pianist’s nonchalant stamina: tricky moments, like fast repeated octaves in the right hand, were extraordinarily even and clear within the busy, unrelenting texture.

The concert concluded with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrushka, a famously difficult work – its own composer could not play it! – which is best known in the iconic recording by Maurizio Pollini. Trifonov created a real feeling of bustle in the opening Russian Dance, and a wonderful kaleidoscope of colours in the final tableau. The central piece, depicting the puppets from the ballet Petrushka, might have been more relaxed and a little less less savage, but there is malevolence in this music that the pianist clearly had decided to emphasise. At times in these pieces he actually looked like a puppet: long arms and legs akimbo, his head bent to one side at a quizzical angle, or bending down over the keyboard to observe his fingers as a puppeteer looks down on his marionettes.

Prior to the Stravinsky we had what was for me the highlight of the night: five Preludes and Fugues from the set of 24 by Dmitri Shostakovich. Far from being the dry, academic studies that Soviet authorities initially criticised, in Trifonov’s hands these pieces seemed as deeply personal and emotionally raw as any of the composer’s string quartets. From the featherweight No 7 in A Major to the magisterial strength of No 24 in D Minor, Trifonov revealed the whole world of angst that exists just below the surface of this composer’s music. We can only hope he is planning a complete recording of the whole set. And of the Schumann. And anything, really. This was a truly memorable recital, and all played from memory.

Daniil Trifonov will perform with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at Perth Concert Hall March 10 – 11, in recital at Melbourne Recital Centre March 14 and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne March 17 – 20.