On winged feet

A coversation with Daniil Trifonov

Daniil Trifonov will be opening the season – one of three concerts featuring the pianist on the 2016/2017 program. Since his Festival Hall debut in autumn 2011, the young pianist has quickly embarked on a brilliant career. We caught hold of the highly sought-after musician in London. He had just returned from jogging and was on his way to a rehearsal – and was every bit as frank and focused as he is on stage.
Perhaps no pianist of our time has experienced such a meteoric rise to stardom as Daniil Trifonov. Upon earning third place at the 2011 International Chopin Competition, he won the Artur Rubinstein Competition and International Tchaikovsky Competition shortly afterward. Since then he has been captivating thousands of listeners around the globe with his incomparable playing.
I seized the opportunity to arrange a meeting with him during his week in London, where he would be giving three successive concerts at Wigmore Hall. In the quiet lobby of his Georgian-style hotel, we might not recognize him as the shining new star on the pianistic horizon. The twenty-five-year-old Russian is wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, his wet hair falling over his face – he has just returned from a jog in Hyde Park. No hint of pomposity or glamorous affectations. Truly an original despite his young years – single-minded, purposeful, and also a bit shy. His expressive face can light up with enthusiasm from one moment to the next, with the same radiance that also seems to envelop him on the concert stage.
Three concerts will also feature on the 2016/2017 program in Baden-Baden, distributed this time throughout the whole season. At the opening concert he will be playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Milan’s La Scala Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly. In June 2017 he returns for a chamber concert with Anne-Sophie Mutter and her Virtuosi. And at the Summer Festival he will be joining with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra to perform Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.
Trifonov harnesses energy for his extremely busy schedule – which includes 120 concerts per year, in addition to commuting between his homes in New York and Moscow – through a conscious, healthy lifestyle. This is another one of the reasons he enjoys Baden-Baden, he says. He takes visible delight in remembering his first visit to the city with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, shortly after his triumph at the Tchaikovsky Competition. “It’s a spa town. So staying there is very enjoyable for an artist,” he comments. “There are many sights and hiking trails – if you have the time, these are good for your general well-being, and then you play better.”
In addition to jogging, he enjoys yoga, swimming, and hiking: “Sometimes I go on hikes of up to 50 kilometers. But I haven’t run a marathon yet…”
On the musical marathon he’s planning for this season, he will be accompanied by works of Robert Schumann, who is one of his favorite composers. Trifonov is preparing a concert program featuring the Kinderszenen, Toccata, and Kreisleriana, and the Piano Concerto is an important addition to his current repertoire. Speaking of Schumann’s music, he particularly values “the immediacy of his emotional expression, the clearly identifiable traces of the soul of a work, and the incredible tension he creates – an energy like a compressed spring that’s continually in a state of the greatest possible tension. His musical characters often contrast starkly with one another, but what I also really like are the incredibly natural forms of expression he finds for his ideas.”
For Trifonov, preparing a new piece like the piano concerto is a multi-stage process: “First there is the phase of falling in love,” Trifonov smiles. “The first encounter is always something very personal: you take your first steps toward the work and, little by little, start becoming aware of each individual tone color. In the second phase you approach it more thoroughly. At the beginning I try just to focus on the piece itself; I only listen to recordings later. I also find it helpful to make recordings while I practice, which I can then listen to afterward. It’s possible to approach things in many different ways, and each piece has its own specific qualities.”
Trifonov’s attention to tone colors on the piano is characteristic of a pianist who is himself a composer. He grew up in a family of musicians in Nizhny Novgorod; his mother teaches chamber music, and his father is a composer. “I came to classical music at the age of five through composing,” Trifonov explains. “In our home, the piano was simply the instrument that was available for this.” The family later moved to Moscow so he could attend the Gnessin Academy of Music. This was followed by studies at the Cleveland Institute in the U.S., where he took composition lessons in addition to his piano work with Sergei Babayan.
The ability to experience music from the composer’s perspective is also audible in his piano playing. As he says, “I often think about how a piano piece could be orchestrated. In some works you might think about which instrument could play a particular passage. But the sound is still clearly recognizable as a piano sound. Then there are works where you can imagine yourself imitating the sound of other instruments.”
Trifonov continues, “When I work on my own compositions, the orchestration generally demands a lot of time. Sometimes very different orchestrations are possible, and sometimes it can be interesting to compare different possibilities. You can also play the same phrase in different emotional states while practicing, suffusing them with different emotions. But you can also imagine how they would sound in different orchestrations – if they were performed on the clarinet, for example, or the viola or flute.”
He adds, “This can play a role during my preparation. On stage, I might no longer be aware of it at all. At that moment other things take precedence – above all the storytelling element, which sometimes demands my full attention: the causal connections between the musical ideas. And of course there’s also a certain element of spontaneity.”
A few years ago Trifonov premiered his piano concerto, and he occasionally also sneaks a short solo composition into his concert programs as an encore. In the future he hopes to reserve more time for composing, he says; his current schedule hardly provides him with any opportunity to compose. “Nonetheless I’m currently orchestrating, little by little, my second concerto, which I’m writing for Gidon Kremer, for violin, piano, and chamber orchestra.” The premiere is planned for 2018.
Trifonov often draws inspiration from his collaborations with other musicians, including Kremer and Valery Gergiev – and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is certainly no exception. “We know each other, but this will be our first performance together,” Trifonov says. “A musician of her caliber naturally brings incredible experience and musical insight, and has an enormous repertoire. I’m really excited about making music together and am also hoping to learn a lot from her – with such a great program! Schubert’s Notturno and “Trout” Quintet, which is also new for me.”
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in contrast, is a longtime friend. “I’ve already played this piece with many orchestras and conductors, and it’s different each time,” Trifonov remarks. “In a musician’s mind, this concerto goes through many transformations over the years. I’d probably be surprised if I were to listen today to the way I played it the first time.” How has his way of seeing the work changed? “Certain details reveal themselves in a different light – details relating to the extended musical lines. One example: it’s not unusual for a pianist, while learning the work, to notice its intricate polyphony. But it takes time before you grasp the large-scale conception. Maybe today I see certain structural elements differently from the way I did earlier.”
Recalling his successes at competitions, he realizes that certain lessons from these challenging times have often proved valuable. “It’s about the long-term demands you make on your own energies,” he explains, “and this is maybe something I’ve learned from the competitions, where it’s particularly important. On the one hand you’ve got to prepare a huge repertoire, and on the other you have to ration your energies so you can go into the finale in top form, instead of overexerting yourself emotionally beforehand. During the competition I stayed away from everything else, I tried to shut myself off and focus completely on the music. This helped me conserve my energy. In short: no parties!”
To gather new energy, he turns to the fine arts. “On free days I enjoy attending interesting art exhibitions,” he notes enthusiastically. “I not only find this incredibly exciting – in many respects it allows me to gather incredible energy during my tours. I like El Greco, Hieronymus Bosch, many of the impressionists, and also many 20th century Russian painters. And Rembrandt. But my favorite painter is Van Gogh.”
A distinctive individual style and visionary intensity is what makes each of these artists compelling. Not unlike what Trifonov himself emanates when he steps onstage – or rather rushes onstage, as if his feet had wings and he could hardly wait to finally sit at the piano and strike up the first note. Then the moment arrives: he unleashes his uniquely powerful musicality, tone colors, and storytelling art. A different world – and we’re right there with him.

Text: Jessica Duchen

Photo: Dario Acosta / DG