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Monday, February 11, 2019

Concert Review: A Snapper-Up of Unconsidered Trifles

Daniil Trifonov takes Carnegie Hall (again.)
Daniil Trifonov and his remarkable hands.
Photo © 2019 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG
The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov returned to the stage of Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, bringing with him an arduous program of Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev. Mr. Trifonov is now 27. A familiar figure on New York's concert stages, he plays difficult repertory with concentration and effort and yet with a technique that makes even the toughest pieces look easy. Adding to the sense of occasion was a large brace of digital video cameras: this particular concert would be live streamed on

Saturday started with Beethoven: the Andante favori that found life as a stand-alone concert piece even after the composer removed it from its original place as the second movement of the Waldstein Sonata. Mr. Trifonov played this set of leaping, celebratory variations on a simple theme with enthusiasm, making one question Beethoven's decision to remove the work (for a short, slow intermezzo passage) in the first place.

Next, and without a pause for the audience to catch their breath, Mr. Trifonov played  the "Hunt" Sonata. This piece takes its nickname from the leaping figure that dominates the first movement, which Mr. Trifonov played with nimble ease. The propulsive movement suggests a pursuit of fox, horse, and rider over some lonely rural stile. Cheerful and bucolic, this is a pianistic companion to the Pastorale Symphony.. The audience, confused at one point, applauded at the end of the first movement, but caught their own mistake. 

After a short step offstage, he returned with Schumann's Bunte-Blätter. This book of fourteen colorful, short works is a Schumann masterpiece, but is normally broken into subsets to open a given recital. Mr. Trifonov treated the whole as a cogent argument between "Floristan" and "Eusebius", the two contrasting sides of Schumann's personality. By turns, the works veered from dream-like episodes to hard-edged inspiration that would make Bach proud. The most astounding passage was the Toccata, a linchpin of the entire work.

The long first half wasn't quite over yet, as Mr. Trifonov played his hole card. Schumann's Presto Passionato is a relentless six-minute movement that the composer had originally chosen as the ending for his G minor sonata. Like the above Beethoven piece, this is technically challenging stuff that is ignored by most pianists, but this nervy, gutty performance showed the merits of both composer and artist to the best possible effect. 

Audience and pianist welcomed the rest after the marathon first half, but the big work on the program was still to come. Mr. Trifonov took a fearless approach to Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8. This is the third and last of Prokofiev's "war" sonatas. It captures the dark tone of Stalinist Russia but also has predictions of a grand Soviet victory over the Nazis, and is less doom-laden than its two predecessors in the catalogue. Mr. Trifonov brought grand and somber tone to the opening funeral dirge before opening the floodgates in the first movement. The slow second and fast third were thrilling too, the last exploding up and down the keyboard with the kind of wild technique that is only heard coming from the most diligent and disciplined players. 

If all that pianism wasn't enough, the Carnegie Hall audience was treated to a pair  of welcome encores, an aftercare for the fierce Prokifiev sonata. This consisted of more Prokofiev, the giggling, pitchfork-twirling passages of two of the composer's Sarcasms (No. 2 and No. 3.) Finally, Mr. Trifonov showed that he does have a softer side with a gentle and lyric reading of the Largo from Frederic Chopin's Cello Sonata, in a transcription for the solo piano by Alfred Cortot. Exiting into the cold night, an awed concertgoer remarked, "Nobody plays that! Ever!" 

Mr. Trifonov does. 

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