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Daniil Trifonov – “A pianist for the rest of our lives”

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (dan-EEL TREE-fon-ov) has made a spectacular ascent to classical music stardom since winning First Prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in 2011 at the age of 20. Combining consummate technique with rare sensitivity and depth, his performances are a perpetual source of awe. “He has everything and more, ... tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that,” stated Martha Argerich, while the New York Times has observed, “Mr. Trifonov has scintillating technique and a virtuosic flair. He is also a thoughtful artist. … He can play with soft-spoken delicacy, not what you associate with competition conquerors.”

The 2013-14 season promises to be a banner one for the young pianist. Deutsche Grammophon signed him as an exclusive recording artist, and his first album for the label, Trifonov: The Carnegie Recital, was captured live at his recent sold-out Carnegie recital debut and is due for U.S. release this winter, to coincide with his return to the New York venue. The New York Times noted that Trifonov’s “soulful artistry and virtuoso chops were in full evidence” at his 2012 Carnegie debut. Further recital engagements take the pianist from Chicago to London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and a host of other international musical hotspots. He looks forward to a similarly extensive lineup of orchestral collaborations, playing concertos by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Chopin, and Mozart in dates with 19 of the world’s foremost orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Washington’s National Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, and Rome’s Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Upcoming chamber music highlights include a duo recital tour with his teacher and fellow pianist, Sergei Babayan, that kicks off with a gala concert at the Dallas Chamber Music Society.

The 2012-13 season saw Trifonov make debuts with all the “Big Five” orchestras – the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra – and with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and London’s Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras, besides returning to the London Symphony and the Mariinsky Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev, and the Warsaw Philharmonic with Antoni Wit. He made solo recital debuts at Carnegie Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, Japan’s Suntory Hall, and the Salle Pleyel in Paris, and the summer brought further triumphs at the Verbier and Edinburgh Festivals and in the pianist’s BBC Proms debut at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Recent recitals have also taken Trifonov to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Boston’s Celebrity Series, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (Master Piano Series), Berlin’s Philharmonie (the Kammermusiksaal), Munich’s Herkulessaal, Bavaria’s Schloss Elmau, Zurich’s Tonhalle, the Lucerne Piano Festival, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris, and the Seoul Arts Center.

As an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist, Trifonov’s future plans with the label include recording Rachmaninoff’s complete piano concertos. His existing discography features a Chopin album for Decca and a recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra on the ensemble’s own label.

It was during the 2010-11 season that Trifonov won medals at three of the music world’s most prestigious competitions, taking Third Prize in Warsaw’s Chopin Competition, First Prize in Tel Aviv’s Rubinstein Competition, and both First Prize and Grand Prix in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition. Jury members and observers at these events included Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Van Cliburn, Emanuel Ax, Nelson Freire, Yefim Bronfman, and Gergiev, who personally awarded Trifonov the Moscow Grand Prix, an additional honor bestowed on the best overall competitor in any category.

Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1991, and having begun his musical training at the age of five, Trifonov went on to attend Moscow’s Gnessin School of Music as a student of Tatiana Zelikman, before pursuing his piano studies with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has also studied composition, and continues to write music for piano, chamber, and orchestra.


“Hearing Trifonov is like having a deep-tissue massage: you keep wanting to pull away from the sheer intensity of it, and you come out feeling as if your reality had been slightly altered. His recital [was a knockout] . . .”

Washington Post, January 2013

Moments before Daniil Trifonov performs, profound silence invariably takes possession of his audience. Its intensity depends not on concert hall convention; rather, it arises naturally from the Russian pianist’s power to transcend the mundane and communicate music’s timeless capacity to bind communities together. Out of that silence comes a rare kind of music-making. “What he does with his hands is technically incredible,” observed one commentator shortly after Trifonov’s triumph in the final of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011. “It’s also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.” That view was expressed not by a professional critic but by one of the world’s greatest pianists, Martha Argerich. She concluded that her young colleague was in possession of “everything and more”, an opinion that has since been boldly underlined in print, online and over the airwaves by a succession of previewers and reviewers. The Washington Post wrote of the “visceral experience” of hearing Trifonov’s playing; the Süddeutsche Zeitung, meanwhile, described his debut concert at last year’s Verbier Festival as “a real culture shock”, such was its blend of poetic insight, wit, nuance and inventive brilliance.

In February 2013, Deutsche Grammophon announced the signing of an exclusive recording agreement with Daniil Trifonov. His debut recital for the yellow label, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, combines Liszt’s formidable Sonata in B minor, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, op. 19, the “Sonata-Fantasy”, and Chopin’s 24 Preludes op. 28. Future plans include concerto albums and further recital recordings. “The moment I signed to Deutsche Grammophon is, of course, perhaps the most significant event in my life to date,” he recalls. “It’s the greatest honour to record my first CD for the label, especially in such a great hall as Carnegie Hall.”

Since winning the Tchaikovsky Competition, Trifonov has travelled the world as recitalist and concerto soloist. His list of credits include debut recitals at Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Auditorium du Louvre in Paris, Tokyo’s Opera City, the Zurich Tonhalle and a host of other leading venues. He has also appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Mariinsky Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. Forthcoming debuts include concerto performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Moscow Philharmonic.

For all the demands of his busy performance schedule, Trifonov still finds time to study with Sergei Babayan and take composition lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “I’m looking forward to future projects with Deutsche Grammophon,” he says. Exploring the vast piano literature, he adds, is the work of a lifetime. “In the coming years I hope to learn as many new pieces as possible and also leave time for composition, as composing partly influences piano playing.”

Daniil Trifonov was born in Nizhny Novgorod on 5 March 1991. The old system of Soviet communism and the once mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had been dissolved by the time Daniil’s parents, both of them professional musicians, celebrated their son’s first birthday. For all the social and economic upheavals of the time, the Trifonovs recognised their son’s prodigious musical talents and supported his formal training. “I started playing piano when I was five and was also composing and always playing some concerts,” Daniil recalls. He gave his first performance with orchestra at the age of eight, an occasion etched in the soloist’s memory by the loss of one of his baby teeth midway through the concert. “It was quite an experience! But the first understanding of how important piano playing is for me came when I broke my left arm at the age of 13. I was going to a piano lesson. It was winter and very slippery, so I fell down and broke my arm and could not play normally for more than three weeks.”

Physical injury focused young Daniil’s mind on what making music meant to him. It also heightened his emotional connection to the piano and its repertoire. Scriabin’s impassioned music – mystical, transcendent and technically demanding – became a near-obsession of Trifonov’s early teens. The composer’s harmonic language and vibrant tone colours touched the aspiring performer’s soul and inspired him to enter Moscow’s Fourth International Scriabin Competition, where the 17-year-old secured fifth prize. Inspiration also flowed from Trifonov’s study of historic recordings of great pianists, which he borrowed from his teacher Tatiana Zelikman at Moscow’s famous Gnessin School of Music. “When I was studying with Tatiana Zelikman in Moscow she had a great collection of old recordings and a lot of LPs, so I was fed by those recordings.” Trifonov absorbed lasting lessons from the recorded legacy of Rachmaninov, Cortot, Horowitz, Friedman, Sofronitsky and other representatives of a golden age of pianism. “Among the pianists who inspire me nowadays are Martha Argerich, Grigory Sokolov and Radu Lupu,” he adds.

Daniil Trifonov himself became an inspiration in the summer of 2011. He began by winning the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel-Aviv before returning home to secure first prize, the Gold Medal, and Grand Prix at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition. Trifonov also won the Audience Award and the Award for the best performance of a Mozart concerto. His work was already known to influential critics and concert promoters thanks to his appearance a year earlier at the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. The media’s broad and deep response to his Moscow victory guaranteed that the whole world knew about the 20-year-old Russian. “Mr Trifonov has scintillating technique and a virtuosic flair,” noted the New York Times. “He is also a thoughtful artist . . . [who] can play with soft-spoken delicacy, not what you associate with competition conquerors.” At the beginning of 2012, cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht heralded the young man’s meteoric progress and neatly described him as “A pianist for the rest of our lives”.

Pianist Daniil Trifonov: Disappearing Into Chopin : NPR<!--[if IE]><![endif]

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Pianist Daniil Trifonov: Disappearing Into ChopinWGBH

Plays Chopin and Medtner

by Cathy Fuller

The 21-year-old pianist Daniil Trifonov has been living through the kind of career trajectory that's often called "meteoric." Within one concert season he won gold medals at both the Tchaikovsky and Artur Rubinstein competitions, and a third prize at the Chopin competition.
You may be like me — always prepared for disappointment when a young artist gets marketed by gold medals and hype. But just listen to the first seven seconds of Trifonov's performance at our Fraser Performance Studio in Boston.
The world of Nikolai Medtner comes instantly and achingly alive — a sad and luminous thought with an echo so distant that it has nothing to do with the piano at all. Medtner and Trifonov evaporate, and we're instantly in a realm of heartbreak. To play with that much dimension and to communicate with such a free and profound control of foreground, middle ground and background — that's virtuosity. (And if you do need to look for signs of involvement, watch Trifonov transform in the instant just before he plays.)
There is both suppleness and steel in his long, slender fingers. They seem to never want to fly too far from the keys. He lifts his face on occasion, as if he were taking in the warmth of a private sun. But the expressions are always genuine, with turns of phrase written occasionally on his face.
"Learning never ends," Trifonov told the Fraser audience. He's still a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, yet this young artist is able to transcend the technical mountains and valleys of Chopin's Etudes and lavish them with character and poetry. Agree or disagree with the direction he takes them in, it's impossible to say he doesn't mean it.
Great pianists internalize music so fully that they can seem to flicker in and out of our perception when they play. They create three-dimensional universes and hover around the edges. Only afterwards do we realize how grateful we are that they led us through them. It's one thing to acknowledge the outward signs of a pianist's involvement, the grimaces and grunts. Being ushered into a musical truth? That's what really counts.
  • Nikolai Medtner: Three Fairy Tales (A minor, E-flat, B-flat minor)
  • Chopin: 12 Etudes, Op. 25
  • Stravinsky (arr. Agosti): "Infernal Dance" (from Firebird)
Daniil Trifonov, piano


Almost exactly one year after his Carnegie Hall recital debut, the young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov returned to its main auditorium. Word of that triumphant debut, in which the then-21-year-old demonstrated his uncommon technical gifts and poetic sensibility in works by Scriabin, Liszt and Chopin, and the recent release of its live recording, contributed to the crush of ticket seekers outside the hall on Thursday evening.

Such high expectations — and the accompanying marketing din — would tempt many a young soloist to respond with a flamboyant program of the fast-and-loud school of piano playing. Instead, the first half of Mr. Trifonov’s recital, comprising short works by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, was almost entirely concerned with color. The second half was given over to Schumann’s Symphonic Études (Op. 13), which, in his individualistic rendition, became an investigation of coded messages and half-dreamed inner voices.

The Symphonic Études are a series of variations — Mr. Trifonov included three of the posthumously published ones for a total of 15 — on a pensive theme. Schumann gives each a distinct rhythmic motion; the challenge to the performer is to imbue each with a specific mood, too. But Mr. Trifonov rarely contented himself with a singular flavor. With the spendthrift imagination of youth, he created miniature narratives for each étude that traversed multiple states of mind. Amid the complex textures he would pick out a single line and make it the lead character, then zoom in on another detail and promote that to the sometimes unlikely antihero.

In selections from Debussy’s “Images” (Book I), Mr. Trifonov showed that he’s capable of reining in that storytelling instinct when needed. The first, “Reflets dans l’eau” (“Reflections in the water”), begins with placid, shimmering chords that are in no rush to get anywhere — music that may, in fact, not want to get out of bed at all. Mr. Trifonov was content to create delicately shaded colors that appeared suspended in time.

In selections from Ravel’s “Miroirs,” too, he demonstrated an affinity with the French repertory and its intense romance with instrumental timbre.

The program opened with Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical “Serenade in A,” which Mr. Trifonov played with careful attention to structure, his lanky frame bent over the keyboard so far that his face nearly touched his hands and he resembled a watchmaker absorbed in the assembly of minute and intricate gears.

Mr. Trifonov gave three encores: two fluid accounts of Chopin’s Opus 28 Preludes (Nos. 17 and 16) and one composition of his own, a breathless, exuberant Scherzo from his Piano Sonata.


Live blog coverage of Daniil Trifonov's new piano concerto in rehearsal at Cleveland Institute of Music

And that's it, folks. The orchestra applauds and Trifonov takes a bow.

What a fascinating process this has been. I've attended plenty of rehearsals in my day, but never one where the composer was also the soloist and the orchestra was reading the work for the very first time. I look forward a great deal to hearing the work in full on April 23.

In the meantime, I've got about an hour to get home, change and grab a bite to eat before heading off to another concert: night two of the Takacs Quartet's Bartok cycle on the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. Thanks for reading, everyone.

6:21 p.m.: A sweeping, Romantic solo for Trifonov grows in intensity. Again I hear evidence that Trifonov was inspired by Rachmaninoff. They play right up to the point where the finale will begin.

6:18 p.m.: We're back to the bright, two-handed melody. Lots of mystery in it. The melody turns in several directions I wouldn't have expected.

6:15 p.m.: Trifonov asks the strings to play pianissimo (very quietly) around measures 8 to 13. It seems he wants to draw attention to a clarinet melody.

6:13 p.m.: They're starting the movement over again. There's that lovely pattern again in the violas and low strings. Smirnoff tweaks the balance so the violas aren't quite so prominent.

6:11 p.m.: We're nearing the end of the movement, which it seems will eventually lead directly into the finale. The finale here is marked Allegro con brio. There's been a long, steady accumulation of energy and momentum.

6:07 p.m.: Smirnoff points out with admiration that this is Trifonov's first composition with full orchestration.

6:03 p.m.: Fitch and Trifonov ask for a particular percussion stroke at measure 58. Smirnoff likens it to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

5:58 p.m.: Now the music changes character dramatically. Trifonov takes over with dense, churning chords and the orchestrations thins out as he unleashes a torrent. The trumpets and trombones are prominent in the fray.

5:53 p.m.: A new section, marked Agitato, commences at measure 42. The violas have a rolling, repetitive pattern - mirrored by the clarinets - that serves as a foundation for a bright, two-handed melody in the piano. They work through the ensuing bars several times to get the balance and phrasing just right.

5:50 p.m.: Trifonov enters with a lengthy, rhapsodic solo passage that yields briefly to the violas. Now the flutes, with a mysterious phrase high above.

5:48 p.m.: They agree to change the legato marking to a two-note, gently-rocking slur pattern instead. I'm not reviewing here, but I like the change.

5:45 p.m.: The slow movement, marked Andante, has begun with a low, legato line in the violas, cellos and basses. A wistful clarinet melody comes in a few bars later.

5:41 p.m.: And we're back. The orchestra is regathering onstage. Trifonov is back at the piano, working privately with his composition teacher, Keith Fitch. I should maybe point out here that the concerto is a commission from CIM.

5:31 p.m.: The end approaches again. Now I'm ready for it. It's a bold, swift gesture that is sure to come as a surprise when listeners hear it for the first time. Smirnoff calls for a 10-minute break before rehearsing the second movement.

5:27 p.m.: What I'm hearing now is sweeping and cinematic. It pulls the listener along easily in the manner of Rachmaninoff.

5:22 p.m.: Apologies for the delay. Had to take a moment to upload a photo. The performance has continued several moments now without interruption.

5:18 p.m. We've passed the tricky measure 160. The music now reminds me fleetingly of Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Trifonov has a swirling solo that is wonderful to hear uninterrupted this time.

5:14 p.m.: Wrong about that. They stop at measure 142. Apparently the trumpets missed their entrance.

5:11 p.m.: They're playing through the movement again, this time -- it seems -- without pause. It's much easier now to get a sense of the music as a whole.

5:08 p.m.: Smirnoff asks Trifonov's teacher, pianist Sergei Babayan, who is also in the audience, for his opinion. He doesn't seem to have any comments. Trifonov also chats quietly with the concertmaster.

5:05 p.m. The first movement ends dramatically, with a kind of hammer-stroke in both piano and orchestra. The orchestra applauds.

5:01 p.m.: The music picks up momentum at measure 299. Smirnoff has the orchestra play through this area a few times, all while Trifonov plays a fiercely difficult solo passage.

4:58 p.m.: Stormy again. At measure 270, after a sweeping, lyrical interlude, the music is marked Presto and Trifonov enters with rich, powerful chords.

4:54 p.m.: Measure 256 appears to have a problem. There appears to be a wrong note written in the horn part.

4:51 p.m.: Trifonov now has a lovely and very tender solo, which the orchestra soon joins. Trifonov told me earlier he tried hard to make the orchestra an active participant in the music, and this section certainly bears out that effort.

4:49 p.m.: They work through measures 225-230 several times. They collectively decide to put a mezzo-piano dynamic marking at measure 227, during the trumpet solo.

4:46 p.m.: It's not marked in the score, but Smirnoff asks the basses to put on mutes at measure 231. He also asks the trumpeter playing a solo at measure 225 to make it "bigger," and gets the result he wanted.

4:43 p.m.: Smirnoff actually borrows a violinist's instrument and demonstrates the col legno passage at measure 205.

4:41 p.m. There's an interesting, skittish section at measure 205, with the violins playing col legno and the violas pizzicato. Smirnoff rehearses it several times, as it leads seamlessly to a keyboard entrance.

4:38 p.m.: The music is picking up speed ahead of a sparkling, high piano solo, and Smirnoff tells the musicians they're falling behind.

4:35 p.m.: A trumpeter in the orchestra asks Trifonov where his mute should come out in a prominent brass line.

4:33 p.m. There's a sharp change of meter at measure 163, and Smirnoff works through the transition several times.

4:30 p.m.: Another mood change. Now everything is sweet, quiet and lyrical. There's a prominent, high flute part. What's amazing is that the orchestra is essentially sight-reading. Smirnoff recommends that parts of the flute music be switched to piccolo.

4:27 p.m.: We're now at bar 127, and things have slowed down. There are prominent castanets in the percussion. Trifonov's part has become more stately, and has built to a forceful peak.

4:24 p.m.: Trifonov has made his entrance. Wow. It's stormy, fast music, and seems wildly virtuosic. This is going to make a bold first impression.

4:22 p.m.: They're working on about the first 25 bars or so. The music is still purely orchestral at this point.

4:19 p.m.: The orchestra just played the first few measures of the first movement. It's dark, brooding music, in a low register. The marking in the score is Andante.

4:17 p.m.: Trifonov just delivered a brief word of introduction.

4:15 p.m.: Hello and welcome to this live coverage of Daniil Trifonov's first piano concerto. I'm in Kulas Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and will soon be watching and listening as Trifonov, a student here and an accomplished pianist and composer, plays through the work for the first time with the CIM Orchestra and conductor Joel Smirnoff.

This is a special occasion indeed. Composers rarely allow the media to hear their work before the official premiere – In this case, April 23, here at CIM. But in this instance, the school convinced Trifonov to open the doors and allow me to witness the creative process in action.

A few facts before things get underway. Trifonov is a world-renowned pianist, winner of two of the most prestigious contests in the keyboard world: the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein Competitions. All along, however, he's also found time for composition, and today we'll be hearing his largest work to date and first orchestral work to receive a performance.

The final work will be in three movements. Today, though, we'll only be hearing the first and second movements. The rehearsal will last approximately two-and-a-half hours. I'll be adding new observations in this post every few moments, so please check back often.

Looks like things are about to get started. The orchestra has gathered on stage and Trifonov is getting settled at the piano. Stay tuned.

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