Pianist Daniil Trifonov Brings His Virtuosity Back to the New York Philharmonic

Classic Arts Features   Pianist Daniil Trifonov Brings His Virtuosity Back to the New York Philharmonic
The formidable musician kicks off his New York concerts with a performance of Scriabin's Piano Concerto November 27–December 3.
Daniil Trifonov
Daniil Trifonov Dario Acosta / DG

Over the last decade, pianist Daniil Trifonov has accrued the kind of triumphs on which legends are built. Winning both First Prize and the Audience Award at the 2011 Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv was merely a prelude. That same year he ran the table at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, bringing home the Gold Medal, the Audience Award, and the Grand Prize for best performer in any instrumental category. Knowledgeable critics and colleagues who heard him were spellbound.

Within months he was programming his own Carnegie Hall Perspectives series, performing with all of the “big five” orchestras (New York, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago), and signing a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He hasn’t come up for air since. Named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year for 2016, and Musical America’s Artist of the Year for 2019, Trifonov was also a recipient of a Grammy Award in 2018, garnering “Best Instrumental Solo Album” for Transcendental, a double album of works by Liszt.

Since making his Philharmonic debut in 2012, he has performed with the Orchestra almost 30 times, most recently helping to inaugurate Jaap van Zweden’s tenure as Music Director in September 2018. Now Trifonov is The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, reuniting with the maestro who describes sharing the stage with the young pianist as “an exploration of what is possible in music, making each experience a musical journey.”

Trifonov’s wide-ranging contributions this season—which include two concerto weeks, a chamber concert, and a recital, along with embarking on the Orchestra’s European tour—reflect an artistic partnership that has grown to include a seat for Trifonov on the Philharmonic’s Board of Directors. Audiences can anticipate genuine revelations from the collaboration. It begins November 27– December 3, with Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, a rare opportunity for audiences to experience the creative genius of an important early-20th-century composer and mystic who envisioned musical tones in the colors of the rainbow. This concerto, performed by the New York Philharmonic only twice before, appears infrequently on the world stage. “I played it with the Berlin Philharmonic last June,” says Trifonov, “but they had done it only once before, in 1908, when the soloist was Scriabin’s wife Tatyana.

“The piece is a hidden gem,” he observes, “filled with so much poetry and atmosphere. It is very organic, using thematic elements that sprout from the piano’s opening. One of the reasons it is not often performed is that it is so difficult to make it work in ensemble. Scriabin does not always write everything in the score, especially when it comes to timing.” One of the key hidden elements in a successful performance, the pianist explains, is the exercise of rubato, the Romantic device of pushing and pulling a musical phrase to add expression. It requires the soloist and orchestra members to be keenly aware of each other’s parts. “It’s a lot of work to achieve the right precision,” he explains. He’ll return in April to display another side of his gifts, through Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, which he will reprise on Jaap van Zweden and the Philharmonic’s European tour the following month.

The pianist’s solo recital, in March, will focus on Bach’s Art of Fugue—the monumental work that demonstrates the unparalleled brilliance of the Baroque composer’s mastery of counterpoint. Ever the explorer, Trifonov will include Bach transcriptions by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt. “I wanted to start the concert,” he says, “by showing how other composers interpreted him.”

Perhaps the most intriguing opportunity is to discover Trifonov as composer. In the December 1 chamber concert the pianist will be performing with the New York Philharmonic String Quartet: Concertmaster Frank Huang, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples, Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps, and Principal Cello Carter Brey. The group will offer the New York Premiere of Trifonov’s own Piano Quintet, Quintetto concertante. “I wrote it about a year ago,” he says. “It’s a work in which themes transform from one moment to another.”

Reviewers have noted its catchy rhythms and late-Romantic tone. Like all of the pianist’s contributions to the Philharmonic’s bill, it is sure to be a discovery, as well as an audience pleaser.

Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is When the World Stopped To Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Knopf).

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