Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [24:55]
Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22 [24:52]
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [18:12]
Daniil TRIFONOV (b. 1991)
Rachmaniana [11:36]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Paganini Rhapsody)
rec. March 2015 (all), Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City (solo works), Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia (Rhapsody)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4970 [79:35]

Daniil Trifonov, who burst onto the recording scene with a live Carnegie Hall recital on DG (one of our Recordings of the Month), follows it up with the (almost) complete variations of Sergei Rachmaninov. Trifonov is not yet 25 years old, but this disc makes abundantly clear that he is already one of the world’s leading pianists.

The signs were clear before I even started listening. Trifonov was a student of Sergei Babayan, one of the great “pianist’s pianists”, a man whose poetic genius has earned him a cult following. Babayan and his student have performed Rachmaninov duos together at Verbier. After a third-place finish at the 2010 Chopin competition — where the extraordinary Lukas Geniušas was robbed of a win — Trifonov won the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in decisive fashion. He is an avid composer, too, including a recent piano concerto. Then there is this remark about Trifonov, from Martha Argerich: “What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It’s also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”

These performances are, indeed, spectacular and it is Trifonov’s versatility which indeed impresses me most. In an era when most young performers seem to choose between technical skill and expressive range, Trifonov tries his best to embody both. His failings, on this disc, are so rare that they almost come as surprises.

The Paganini Rhapsody is as good a performance as anyone has ever recorded, and the famous Variation 18 is, in fact, the highlight. Trifonov’s playing here is so sensitive, so gently muted, and so expertly timed that I’m just as awed as I was the first time I ever heard this moment. In the preceding variation, Trifonov is so hushed and dark-toned that the piano seems to slip into its own shadow. The Philadelphia Orchestra proves to be as able an accompanying band as you’d expect.

The Chopin variations provide the “almost” in “the (almost) complete variations of Sergei Rachmaninov”, since Trifonov chooses to omit three of them. I’m not sure why but Michelangeli omitted variations from Brahms all the time, so the young pianist is not breaking any sacred rules here. The performance is so good that I’m willing to forgive and has an abundance of the sensitivity and reflective power we heard in the Paganini Rhapsody.

The surprising flaw comes in the Chopin Variations’ polonaise-like finale, when Trifonov is not nearly as big or as mighty as he could be. For such an epic bit of music, the pianist seems to hold back, both in phrasing and in sheer volume. Why isn’t this louder, slower, more majestic?

The Corelli Variations find Trifonov better harnessing his power, although, again, the escalating power near the end seems more like Liszt than Rachmaninov. It is in the quieter, more uneasy passages, and particularly in the coda, that the performer seems most comfortable.

Sandwiched between these works is an original composition, Rachmaniana — not, as I originally thought, Rachmania. Eleven minutes long, Trifonov’s suite pays tribute to the great composer, but surprisingly never attempts to mimic him. There is a subtle allusion to Dies irae, true, but this music also has delicate impressionist harmonies and finger-bending piano writing which, like some of the Rachmaninov preludes, disguises itself as a luminous, peaceful nocturne.

The solo music is recorded superbly, and there’s only one flaw with the Rhapsody recording, a certain brightness and lack of substance to the treble registers of the piano. I do wish the engineers at Soundmirror, or from BIS, had been put in charge of that one.

DG’s promo materials claim that critics are “unanimous” in declaring Daniil Trifonov the greatest Russian pianist of the twenty-first century. Well, no, we are not but that is not a reflection on Trifonov: it is a mark of just how many exciting young pianists are on the scene today. Between Daniil Trifonov, Lukas Geniušas and Yevgeny Sudbin, the young Russian generation is shaping up to be extraordinary. Alexander Melnikov and Kirill Gerstein aren’t old men, either. Let’s enjoy all of them as much as we can, and let history be the judge.

By the way, when can we hear Trifonov’s piano concerto? Soon, I hope.

Brian Reinhart


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