The New York Times - Saturday, July 30, 2011 - Written by Anthony Tommasini

A Pianist's Pensive and Fanciful Sides

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov has had quite a year so far. In May, two months after turning 20, he took first prize in the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. In June he won the gold medal in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Not surprisingly, there was a waiting list of people trying to get into Mr. Trifonov’s sold-out recital at Mannes College the New School for Music on Thursday night, part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. As advance word suggested, Mr. Trifonov has scintillating technique and a virtuosic flair. He is also a thoughtful artist and, when so moved, he can play with soft-spoken delicacy, not what you associate with competition conquerors.

These qualities came through in his opening work, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor. Unlike the later, mystical Scriabin sonatas, this is a rhapsodic work with Chopinesque beauties. The first movement is like a lurching dance run through with a nonstop lyrical line. Mr. Trifonov balanced voices beautifully and, in a way, orchestrated the layers of sound. He played with pensive delicacy in the slow movement and a touch of bracing wildness in the stormy finale.

In four novelty pieces by Tchaikovsky he showed his fanciful side. What most moved me was his account of Chopin’s Barcarolle. Beneath its surface beauties, this is contrapuntally and harmonically complex music. Mr. Trifonov gave an unusually subdued performance, sometimes intentionally blurring the lilting barcarolle accompaniment figure to create a shimmering mist of sound.

Now and then details were indistinct, and a burst of impetuosity threw off the poise of his overall conception. Still, his deep involvement with the music came through in every phrase. Mr. Trifonov is a boyish young man who enjoys performing. But he becomes absorbed when he plays and is no showman. At the end of the barcarolle he looked spent.

He had reserves of energy, it turned out. Though his performance of Chopin’s Three Mazurkas (Op. 56) had a little too much Russian Romantic rhythmic freedom for my taste, he bent phrases with such tenderness that he won me over.

In Liszt’s brilliant “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1, Mr. Trifonov finally let out his inner demon virtuoso, which was fun to hear. His breathless tempos sometimes caused scrambled moments in his fiery passagework. Who cared? The audience erupted in cheers, and Mr. Trifonov played four encores, all Chopin, including three études.

Now what? His concert calendar for next season is crammed with appearances around the world, including a concert at Carnegie Hall in October with the Mariinski Orchestra, in which he will perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Valery Gergiev conducting. He is quickly gaining attention and is all over YouTube.

Mr. Trifonov’s poetic nature needs more mentoring. Since 2009 he has been studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music. But will his touring life take over? It would reassure me if his repertory list had works by living composers. But it includes a few pieces he has written: an encouraging sign. I wish he had played one.

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