Trifonov displays virtuosity and fantasy in winning style
The Russian pianist, who turned 24 last week, appeared to be in the zone Friday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall as he mused and surged his way through all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, in their final (and simplified, if you can believe it) version of 1851.
He warmed up for this feat with a first half consisting of the Bach-Liszt Fantasy and Fugue in G minor and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C minor. Clearly, this young man meant business.
The recital, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, began a little stiffly, as Bach’s wildly chromatic fantasy never quite caught fire. Originally for organ, this music sounded brittle rather than sonorous on the American-made Steinway piano with which Trifonov began the program. (By prior arrangement, a German Steinway was brought in at intermission, because the artist preferred it for the Liszt.)
Bach’s fugue, on the other hand, danced brightly under Trifonov’s fingers, its sprightly theme peeking out from all registers of the piano in Liszt’s faithful arrangement.
The wayward character of Bach’s fantasy was mirrored in the disjointed exclamations that opened the Beethoven sonata. Although the pianist didn’t make much sense of these—if there was sense to be made–as the allegro gathered steam it became, just as marked in the score, superbly “con brio ed appassionato.” The old composer sounded rejuvenated in the young pianist’s vital performance.
By contrast, Trifonov took the tender theme of the closing variations at such a slow tempo and in such a distant pianissimo that one could hardly imagine him sustaining the long melodic line—but he did. The variations were daringly slow too, at least until the ever-shortening note values finally propelled the pianist out of the shadows and into a patch of bright sunshine.
Soon enough, a dreamy mist surrounded the music again, and the movement’s long final variation and coda unfolded mostly in a whisper. There was, however, nothing understated about the applause that followed this unconventional but mesmerizing performance.
Unlike Chopin’s sets of twelve etudes each, Liszt’s transcendental dozen is rarely performed straight through in recital. Besides being an almost superhuman test of stamina lasting well over an hour, the set is uneven in quality, consisting of three or four authentic landmarks of the piano repertoire surrounded by less-inspired material in which the composer aims for effects that he achieved better elsewhere.
Even in Trifonov’s highly imaginative performance, one ended up not so much swept away by the music as marveling at Liszt’s endless invention of new keyboard tricks. And eventually, the unrelenting blizzard of notes began to recall, for one Boston listener at least, all-too-fresh experiences outside the concert hall.
The composer dedicated this collection to his teacher Carl Czerny, an estimable composer (pupil of Beethoven, no less) who is now known mainly for his many books of arid exercises for the piano student. Even at its dimmest, Liszt’s inspiration in these pieces was a notch or two above that.
Aided by the rounder, fuller tone of the Hamburg piano, Trifonov amply realized Liszt’s most thunderous passages without banging. But he seemed to relish even more the leggiero moments, when he showed an uncanny ability make his half-ton instrument sound as insubstantial as air.
The set opened with a Preludio, a spray of fireworks that could have served as a model of brevity to the pieces that followed. In Etude No. 2, a Molto vivace in A minor, Trifonov demonstrated, for the first but far from last time, his ability to make clear, eloquent phrases emerge from figuration that leaped madly around the keyboard.
Paysage, a rather random rustic ramble, resisted Trifonov’s efforts to sustain interest in it, despite shapely phrasing and the kind of expert, layered voicing that would have been welcome in the Bach fantasia heard earlier. Mazeppa is known for its ever-wilder evocations of a horse galloping out of control, which Trifonov executed with plenty of drama, but its most striking feature in this performance was a hushed interlude with vaporous right-hand filigree.
In Feux follets (Will-o’-the-wisp), perhaps the high point of a great night for leggiero playing, Trifonov was like a magician shaking the sparkling notes and volatile moods out of his shirt cuffs—the better to plunge afterward into the monstrous Vision, lumbering at first like Mussorgsky’s ox-cart, then growing into something more scary.
With its seemingly thrown-together gestures, alternately furtive and grand, Eroica hinted at some great Hungarian drama happening offstage, but didn’t hold one’s attention on this night. Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt), on the other hand, was a classic of musical narrative, its breathless dash the inspiration for a thousand silent-movie scores, and Trifonov gave it his most fleet and brilliant treatment, not neglecting the voicing even in the busiest moments.
The feathery decoration of the nocturne-style Ricordanza (Memory) was a marvel, and Trifonov managed to imbue the rather plain tune with a feeling of mystery and weightlessness, but ultimately the piece considerably overstayed its welcome. Conversely, the pianist restrained expression in the shuddering, explosive Etude No. 10 in F minor, which is commonly played as a raging tempest from start to finish, but here simmered menacingly in a low dynamic for most of the way, the better to burst out with full force at the end.
Harmonies du soir (Evening harmonies) wandered aimlessly at the start, then “went big” in that Liszt way, with a high-profile melody in the piano’s tenor register cranking up to flurries of octaves. Not even a sensitive, well-gauged performance by Trifonov could make something coherent of it.
The pianist had his nerve, ending a Boston recital in March 2015 with a piece titled Chasse-neige (Snowplow), but Liszt’s gusty rhetoric and a fine duet between left and right hands carried the day.
Wobbling up from the piano bench, tie askew and hair clinging to his damp forehead, the slender pianist looked as though he had just played a five-set final at the U.S. Open, but an ovation worthy of the Center Court grandstand brought a weary smile to his face.
He managed a single encore, Nikolai Medtner’s Forgotten Melody No. 8, “Alla reminiscenza,” a bit of Lisztian ripple that, of course, went big near the end.
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