After making his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011 with the Mariinsky Orchestra—shortly after winning both the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions—Daniil Trifonov has become one of the most celebrated newcomers in classical music. In advance of his Perspectives series, he spoke with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning, about the many musical ideas he plans to showcase this season.
You are Carnegie Hall’s youngest-ever Perspectives artist, and what you have chosen to do with your series is very different and personal.
Daniil Trifonov: When I first learned that I was being invited to create a Perspectives series, I had a lot of musical ideas that involved different repertoires, all of which represent some of my main musical interests. But I kept wanting to come back to the theme of Chopin. Before the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, I participated in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. But the last several seasons, I have not been playing anything by Chopin. In a way, this is a great opportunity for me to go back to this composer—not only music by him, but also music by others who were inspired by him. For instance, in my recital program this October, the second half consists of works by Chopin, with the first half being the music of Mompou, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Schumann, and others who were writing music inspired by Chopin.
What makes playing Chopin’s music different from playing music by other composers? What type of pianism does Chopin require?
Well, of course, Chopin’s music has very sensitive dynamics, very sensitive shading of harmonies. It’s the chromatic nature of his language, always deeply emotional and poetic. Even though he was born in a time when ornamentation was in fashion, he incorporated it in so elegant and natural a way that it is perceived to be part of the melody rather than an unnecessary beautification of the score. In the case of Chopin, ornamentation is an essential part of the music.
Along with Gautier Capuçon, you will perform Chopin’s Cello Sonata—his only non-piano work in the form. Why did you want to include that in your series?
It’s a very interesting part of Chopin’s heritage. Despite not writing a lot of repertoire for the cello, he was able to leave a very important imprint on the cello repertoire. He was perhaps attracted to the intensity, the singing quality of the instrument—the way it so closely resembles the human voice.
You also delve into the singer’s repertoire in recital with baritone Matthias Goerne, with whom you’ve collaborated since 2015. But you’ll also be working with someone you’ve had a much longer association: your former teacher, Sergei Babayan.
I specifically went to the Cleveland Institute of Music to study with Sergei, based on the recommendation of my previous teacher in Moscow, Tatiana Zelikman. I wanted to continue my studies in the United States. Of course in the beginning, certain ideas of his were very new to me, and it took a little bit of time to understand and incorporate them. But over time, there has been a lot of repertoire that I’ve studied with him—especially 20th-century works.
Does it feel like you have a different relationship with him now that you perform together?
Well, of course. But during lessons he always treats his students as artists, and he asks for their artistic ideas. He’s still a mentor, but when we’re onstage, it’s complete equality. The repertoire you two have chosen includes a commission by Mauro Lanza. How much of his work did you know before selecting him to write a new piece? I discovered Lanza’s work in Cleveland. One of my best friends is a composer, and he showed me different works by contemporary writers. What I liked about Lanza’s style was the unpredictability, which led to the idea that it would be great if he wrote a piece for two pianos.
It’s a rarity to hear four-hand and two-piano repertoire. With Babayan, you’re performing Schubert’s “Fantasie” and also both of Rachmaninoff’s suites.
There’s a certain distribution of parts in these works—it’s not that one player always plays the accompaniment and the other always plays the melody. The Rachmaninoff suites are probably the pieces we’ve played together most in concert. Suite No. 1 was written relatively early, but the second was written after a period of depression that Rachmaninoff had after the failure of his First Symphony at its premiere. Once he came back to writing music, he wrote the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Suite for Two Pianos. So this work occupies quite an important place in his life.
We also get to hear a completely different side of you: as a composer, performing your own concerto with the Mariinsky Orchestra.
I began as a composer when I was five years old. It was actually composition that brought me to the piano. At that time I wasn’t yet interested in playing the instrument—I only wanted to use it to express several compositional ideas. My interest started fading a bit when I was studying in Moscow. Back then I was living relatively far from school, so there was little time to compose. But when I came to Cleveland, I started writing again.
Did you look to any styles or musical periods for your concerto?
There are no real models that I looked to when writing this work. I was writing more as an explanation of inner emotions. Once there is a personal limit that is passed, the emotions need an output. When there is a new experience or certain shifts in consciousness, that’s what—at least for me—provokes music making. Of course, there was music that I was playing at the same time as when I was composing, so perhaps there are certain elements of Russian Romanticism.
For the finale of your series, you’ve curated a program of 20th-century works that you call Decades. Could you tell us about the concept behind that program?
Well, during my first years of touring, I had primarily performed repertoire from the classical and romantic periods. I played very few pieces from the 20th century—mainly Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and some works by Stravinsky. However, I wanted to concentrate more seriously on an exclusively 20th-century program. I had an idea of showing the progression of piano writing throughout that period when there was such a breathtaking speed of evolution. If you’re listening to works from different decades, the styles are completely different. So each of the ten decades in the century is represented by a work that was at the time very novel in its language. It’s a musical exploration of the 20th century—a time lapse of 20th-century piano writing.