Daniil Trifonov looks at the pages of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and hears an opera.
“Tchaikovsky’s essence was in his ballets and operas, and there is a lot of operatic language in this concerto as well,” said the Russian piano virtuoso, who will perform the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, on Oct. 15 as part of the gala Symphony Ball, which re-creates the CSO’s first concerts of Oct. 16-17, 1891, and culminates the CSO’s 125th anniversary celebrations. “It seems almost like different scenes of an opera, as opposed to certain other concertos that might be pianistic or symphonic.”
The gala will mark Trifonov’s second performance of the concerto with the CSO; it was the vehicle for his debut with the orchestra in 2012. But he believes there is still plenty to discover. “Even two consecutive performances, in the same hall and with the same piano, there can be lots of differences,” said Trifonov, who just won Gramophone’s 2016 Artist of the Year honors, awarded by the readers of the classical-music magazine. “There is lots of room for fresh ideas, and some of them can happen instantly.”
Having a fresh idea during a performance with dozens of other musicians onstage might seem risky, but Trifonov said, “There’s a certain musical trust that can bring more freedom onstage, and a certain spontaneity that will be understood.” Though he’s only 25, he has established that trust in multiple appearances with the CSO. “There’s a certain spark while playing with an orchestra,” he said. “It’s a very collaborative form of playing.”
After the pianist’s debut with the CSO, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Trifonov certainly had the explosive power, the wide tonal palette and the big Russian manner this romantic warhorse requires. His large hands took in stride the massive opening chords, just as they did the torrential octaves near the end. The lyrical command he brought to the Andantino middle movement suggested poetic reserves to be tapped even deeper as the young pianist matures.”
Trifonov also has enjoyed sitting in the audience at Orchestra Hall; he took in a concert here by jazz pianists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Other highlights of a visit to the city usually include seeing local friends, a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, and exploring the city’s neighborhoods.
His transition from prodigy to established soloist accelerated in 2010 upon winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. “The biggest challenge was time management,” he said, since his suddenly full calendar allowed less time for practice. He also had to learn to build in recuperation time from the physical and emotional energy he expends in a concert — or even more, in a solo recital.
Writing in 2012 after Trifonov’s London debut, columnist Norman Lebrecht said, “This is a major artist, phenomenally gifted and almost fully formed, with fresh ideas and a winning stage presence that is quite irresistible from the moment he bounds through the door and sits at the keyboard, unable to contain his need to share.”
Trifonov’s schedule this season is packed with about 130 concerts, but he plans to cut back to around 100 in the future, to allow more time for rest and for learning new repertoire. Often, he said, the purpose of studying a new piece is not to perform it, but to learn more about the composer. Also, as a composer himself, he may notice “how he handles the material or the way he orchestrates.”
Part of Trifonov’s regular repertoire is his own Piano Concerto No. 1; the work, which premiered in 2013, is the first he has written for full orchestra. “I’m still searching for my idiom,” he said, but he mentions Scriabin and Prokofiev as influences.
Being a composer gives a unique perspective to works that he studies. “It becomes easier to detect certain compositional elements, inner voices,” he said. “Or the psychological mood or atmosphere, what the composer felt. It can be an interesting question, because sometimes a certain harmony can sound totally different in a different mood.”
Liszt and Rachmaninov, to take two famous examples, built careers as virtuoso pianists while leaving legacies of compositions, but Trifonov has no plans to follow in those footsteps. For now, composition is an outlet that he pursues when he has time and inclination. A more pressing project is to explore 20th-century repertoire; he hopes to put together a recital program of Ligeti, Messiaen, Corigliano and others.
Meanwhile, Liszt is the subject of Trifonov’s latest release, “Transcendental” (Deutsche Grammophon), a double-disc set of the 19th-century composer’s complete concert études (the 12 Transcendental Études; Two Études de Concert, S.145; Three Études de Concert, S.144, and the Grand Études of Paganini, S. 141).
Of the set, which he recorded in just five days (and will be available Oct. 7), Trifonov observes in the liner notes: “Liszt changed music forever: how it was heard, how it was performed, what music could express — what it meant to be an artist. He was the grandfather of us all. He was a phenomenon.”
David Lewellen is a Milwaukee-based writer.