Daniil Trifonov is one of the busiest pianists in the world: in 2014 alone 135 recitals, appearances with major orchestras, and chamber collaborations have been planned : a grueling travel schedule that might shock the first time one sees the 23-year-old's apparent delicacy. Nevertheless, the young man who won first prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein Piano Competitions gives insightful performances that are so fearless, fiery, and powerful that he has become universally acclaimed. As the eminent pianist Martha Argerich has said, "What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It's also his touch : he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I've never heard anything like that."
Trifonov : who is returning to the Philharmonic, December 30, January 2 _3 : knew his life would be in music from the age of 13, when he was rendered profoundly unhappy by being unable to play because he had broken his left hand. He practices as much as he can, preferring seven hours each day, when he immerses himself in miniscule details of sound and phrasing, experimenting, learning new repertoire, and polishing his immense technique. When asked about hobbies, he looks surprised; there is not enough time even for music, although he loves literature (especially Tolstoy, whom he often quotes), art, and exploring new cities. Sometimes he watches soccer. But he approaches his work almost as a mission, and has compared the classical performer to a pastor and the performance space to a temple of art. He is ever mindful of the audiences who, he believes, need to experience something profound and meaningful in every concert.
Trifonov's dedication to music is rooted both in his family history and in the Russian tradition he inherited. He is a son, grandson, and great-grandson of musicians. His mother teaches music theory, and his father is a composer _ mostly of church music _ who used to play in a punkrock group, and there are still more musicians on both sides of the family. Young Daniil began composing even before his first piano lesson, which he took at age five, and he has been performing on stage since he was six. He first played with an orchestra at age eight, and he even remembers the event vividly: he lost a baby tooth during the performance, but did not stop playing.
The family soon moved from Trifonov's native Nizhniy Novgorod to Moscow, where he was accepted into the prestigious Gnessin Specialized Musical School for Gifted Children, and for the next nine years he studied with Tatiana Zelikman, a highly regarded teacher who introduced young Daniil to her enormous collection of recordings by the great pianists : Rachmaninoff, Hoffman, Lipatti, and Horowitz. Trifonov's next musical mentor was Sergey Babayan at the Cleveland Institute, who, like Zelikman, stems from the musical heritage of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, famous for instilling in his students a thirst for wide cultural erudition, enormous respect for the composer and the score, and the continual search for deep meaning and emotional truth. Technical versatility was a given. Does this not sound just like Trifonov?
The young pianist fondly remembers his New York Philharmonic debut two years ago. "It was a very exciting experience!" he recalls. "We played Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3, and the sense of authenticity with which the orchestra and Alan Gilbert performed the score was captivating. I loved their flexibility, which allowed me to be more spontaneous in changing and bringing out various colors and characters of this score. I am very happy to be back."
This time the conductor is Juanjo Mena from Spain, who has performed neither with the Philharmonic nor Trifonov before. The work is Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, and it's the first time Trifonov will play the work in New York. In fact, he came to the composer surprisingly recently, only about three years ago : highly unusual for a Russian pianist. Now that Trifonov has discovered this oeuvre, he is embarking on a cycle of Rachmaninoff's concertos (with Deutsche Grammophon, his exclusive label). But the First holds a special place for him.
"It is strange that this concerto is not as popular as Nos. 2 and 3," says Trifonov. "Rachmaninoff himself considered it to be his best. It is full of fresh, original ideas. It is one of the most intriguing of Rachmaninoff's works in terms of its harmonic language, and it has this very rich, intense, and eloquent dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra."
Maya Pritsker is a New York _based journalist and a music critic.