Archive for March, 2017

Daniil Trifonov


Daniil Trifonov

One of the regulars at Chicago’s piano recitals walked out abruptly at the end of the first half of Daniil Trifonov’s performance this afternoon and didn’t return for the second half. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was reacting to one of the most dreadful performances of Schumann I have sat through, by turns funereal and clangorous, but that would have been a shame because the concert ended with the most joyous extravagantly virtuosic performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka that I have ever heard. Piano recitals are often a tale of two halves, but there has seldom been such a strong contrast as I experienced today.

The Schumann was a surprise. Trifonov is undoubtedly a genius, the only pianist to win both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in the same year. A year ago, still only 25, he won the Gramophone Artist of the Year award. I recently watched an intensely communicative performance of the Chopin Preludes online, reviving my love of music that I sometimes found stale from over-familiarity. If he is able to respond to Chopin’s more overt poetry, he seemed unable to enter into Schumann’s more intimate expressive world. In the first half, he sat stiffly upright, playing with a deadpan expression, his arms stretched out as if to keep his emotional distance from the piano keys. The famous Traümerei from his Kinderszenen were played with a blank solemnity and if the child had not already fallen asleep in the penultimate piece, Kind im Einschlummern, he would not have lasted long listening to the lugubrious poet that followed. Several in the audience enjoyed their own slumbers.

The Toccata was at least fast and loud, but also over-pedalled, dashing my hopes that Trifonov would match Sviatoslav Richter’s miraculously lithe and transparent recording. A few years ago, Jonathan Biss played the second movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana with a lyricism that was both ardent and tender, but here it was just slow and shapeless, and the final spectral gallop was more of a muted trot. I was seriously concerned that Trifonov, now bearded and wearing tails, was becoming a jaded professional, bored by what he was playing.

The real Trifonov finally showed up in the second half. He played a sequence of five of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, with the rather solemn fourth followed by an exquisitely shaded performance of the seventh and a scintillating account of the second. He finished with the 24th, perhaps an overly portentous choice for such a brief selection, but played with impressive cumulative power.

By the end, he looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He bounded onto the stage to start Petrushka, launching into the opening bars with a broad smile almost before he was seated. Whereas he had been an impassive observer of the music in the first half, now he was fully engaged, hunched over the keyboard or even jumping off the stool, while his hands flew over the notes. It was not the most immaculate performance I have heard – he missed a few right-hand leaps and once even failed to touch the keyboard during a glissando – but it was thoroughly exhilarating to see playing of such visceral excitement. It reminded me of a live recording of Gilels in the early sixties, normally such a restrained perfectionist, playing the same music with carefree abandon. Here was a young artist sharing his prodigious gifts with an infectious joy, producing a richly deserved standing ovation that even I joined in.

There were plenty of examples of Trifonov’s imagination in all three movements, but particularly in the drama of the central movement, full of the most telling details. When I last heard him live, he played some of Ravel’s Miroirs with a storyteller’s gift, giving a cinematic sweep to what are normally static images, and he did the same here. When I compared him to Benjamin Grosvenor, I wrote of their shared gift in rethinking and thereby refreshing our own appreciation of even the most familiar music. I still believe that, and hope that the Schumann was an aberration he is unlikely to repeat, rather than an inevitable consequence of growing a beard.


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Benjamin Grosvenor


Benjamin Grosvenor

After his recent piano recital in Chicago, Benjamin Grosvenor was asked what advice he would give to young pianists. Since he is only 24, he seemed a little bemused even though his first concert was nearly 14 years ago. Nevertheless, if you didn’t know his age, you could be forgiven for assuming he has been around much longer, because he is perhaps the most complete pianist I have heard live in a long time. Along with his near contemporary, Daniil Trifonov, he seems to herald a new generation of artists who combine absolute technical mastery with a quest to rethink every note, eliminate every stylistic cliché, and uncover the expressive heart of every piece. Time and again, when I have heard him online, he has revealed new facets, sometimes startlingly original, in even the most familiar music, without the novelty ever seeming like self-indulgence. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations, but they were always fresh and imaginative.

The clearest example of this gift in his Chicago recital was the famous opening movement of the Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Normally, this is played to invoke a sense of wrapt stillness, through intense concentration and an even touch. Murray Perahia was an exemplary exponent of this approach a few years ago, Kissin less so. Grosvenor instead painted a canvas with subtly variegated colors that were worthy of Turner, conveying a vivid nocturnal scene with skillful chiaroscuro. The ebb and flow of the dynamics were perfectly judged, making the interpretation seem, while we were listening, to be inevitable, banishing any alternatives. Whether the popular title is authentic to Beethoven’s original conception or not, it has never seemed so apposite.

Grosvenor selects extremely varied programs, giving him an opportunity to inhabit a wide range of styles. He began with an affectionate rendition of Schumann’s Arabesque, and continued with a sprightly Mozart sonata. However, I suspect that he feels more at home with the more romantic repertoire. The second half started with a ravishing account of Scriabin’s early Sonata No. 2, op. 19, the opening movement being warmly phrased and colored, with the right hand tracing tender filigree roulades. The presto last movement can call to mind Emperor Joseph’s famous complaint about “too many notes,” but here the right-hand torrent was propelled inexorably by driving left-hand octaves, both combining to create a compelling dramatic narrative.

He ended his recital in Spain, with rhythmically alert performances of two of Granados’ Goyescas forming a bridge to Liszt’s formidable Rhapsodie Espagnole, surely one of his most challenging works to bring off. While his performance didn’t entirely eclipse memories of Stephen Hough’s remarkable recording, or even Arnaldo Cohen’s Symphony Center recital a few years ago, Grosvenor was in full command of the notes, whether in the flamboyant rhetoric of the La Folia variations or the snapping rhythms of the Jota Aragonesa. He gave two encores, one by Moskowski and one by Nikolai Kapustin, faux jazz that I once described as sounding like a cocktail bar pianist on steroids.

I was excited to discover that Benjamin Grosvenor was appearing in Chicago, and he didn’t disappoint. He is quite famous in the UK as the youngest ever winner of the BBC Young Musician’s piano category, with a performance of the Ravel’s G-Major Concerto that was remarkably mature for an 11-year old (and can still be seen on YouTube). He obviously enjoys crowd-pleasing music; he claims to have been the youngest member of the Billy Mayerl Society by about 60 years. I am guessing that he has left Marigold and Wisteria far behind him, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in delving into the more ascetic repertoire yet. I am not expecting him to return to play the Goldberg Variations any time soon. That’s fine – there are plenty of other pieces that are well suited to his keenly intuitive musicality. And he’s still only 24.


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