Recording of the Week, Daniil Trifonov performs piano works by Chopin and others
‘Hats off, gentlemen: a genius’. Robert Schumann’s description of the young Chopin could just as easily apply to Daniil Trifonov, whose Evocations (released today on Deutsche Grammophon) explores the great composer-pianist’s influence on his contemporaries and successors, juxtaposing towering accounts of the two concertos with solo pieces by Schumann himself, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Mompou and Samuel Barber. Owing to an entirely typical technical mishap on my part, I started my journey through this album not with the First Piano Concerto but with Chopin’s early Variations on Mozart’s ‘La ci darem la mano’, and I’d rather recommend replicating my mistake: Trifonov conjures the music into life as if he’s idly noodling around at the keyboard, picking out a favourite tune and extemporising on it, and that spirit of quasi-improvisation sets the scene for two hours of some of the most affectionate and spontaneous music-making I’ve heard all year.
It was around this time last year that Trifonov’s phenomenal set of the complete Liszt Études burst onto the scene, and shortly afterwards became a Presto Disc of the Year (I distinctly remember that there was no opposition from any of the panel about its inclusion, in what was otherwise a protracted and at times rather heated discussion!). Many of the virtues that marked that recording out as exceptional hold good here: the unfailing clarity of Trifonov’s articulation and voicing even in the thickest textures and most intricate thickets of passagework, the faultless legato and sense of line which means we never lose sight of the overarching melodies even when all hell is breaking loose around them, and above all the nigh-on miraculous impression of space which he can impart and which genuinely creates the impression of time standing still.
That last album was aptly subtitled Transcendental, and though it’s a word with specific Lisztian connotations the moniker is just as apposite here: there are at least half a dozen almost uncanny moments where the music seems to exist in another dimension, such as the high, hushed cadenza towards the end of the F minor Concerto and above all the closing account of the Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, where Trifonov achieves a pianissimo so weightless that it’s hard to credit it as the product of a percussive mechanism in human hands. Yet at no point in either the concertos or solo items is there any sense of indulgence or bravura for its own sake – the playing on offer here is unquestionably sublime, but never is it even remotely egotistical.
The concertos are presented in new orchestrations by Mikhail Pletnev, who also conducts: like Chopin and Trifonov, he himself is a fine composer-pianist. The reworked first pages of both pieces will certainly make you sit up and listen (he opts for a strings-only opening to No. 1, whilst the violins’ wistful F minor figure in the first bars of No. 2 is passed over to the clarinets, whose role is judiciously upscaled at various points throughout), but thereafter his modifications are subtle ones – soaring strings doubling the melody to support the soloist here and there, ‘scrubbing’ semiquavers in the violins reinvented as cantabile lines, and the occasional reallocation of string parts to winds and vice versa.
It’s all very in keeping with Trifonov’s predominantly lyrical, singing approach, and the fact that expectations are confounded by the opening bars instantly makes you listen with fresh ears – if Trifonov’s sheer artistry didn’t already compel you to do so.
My only regret is that the album includes no music by Trifonov himself: a fine composer in his own right, his ‘Rachmaniana’ was a fascinating supplement to his 2015 recording of the Rachmaninov Variations and I’d have loved to hear how he responded to Chopin, but perhaps that comes under the category of demanding the moon on a stick. I don’t think I’m speaking too soon when I predict that this is another recording which is going to take up very little time in our imminent Discs of the Year meeting: I feel my work’s done in simply urging my fellow panellists to give it their undivided attention as soon as possible, and strongly encourage everyone else to do the same!