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After winning a major competition, some pianists collect their gold medal, play a few concerts, and then disappear into the ether. But not the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who won both the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein International Competitions in 2011 at age 20.

Daniil Trifonov [photo (c) Alexander Ivanov]

Daniil Trifonov [photo (c) Alexander Ivanov]

Since those victories, Trifonov has performed concertos with major orchestras worldwide, toured Japan with the Mariinsky Orchestra and the U.S. with Gidon Kremer (they played La Jolla in January), and had Deutsche Grammophon issue his debut Carnegie Hall recital as a CD, followed with a 2-disc release last fall.

Friday’s (April 10) bustling, capacity audience at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium knew why it was there, and Trifonov did not disappoint.

We expect competition winners to have technique to burn, but it was Trifonov’s impassioned interpretation that glowed with incandescent fervor in this recital for the La Jolla Music Society.

Indeed, as he navigated his way through all twelve of Franz Liszt’s “Transcendental Études,” the depth of his technical prowess could easily have been the center of attention had it not been for the poetry he so generously extracted from each étude. It is rare to hear the entire set of “Transcendental Études” played on one program, and rarer still to witness such consummate artistry throughout.

The late scholar and virtuoso Charles Rosen called this hour-long Liszt opus “fascinating, stupefyingly brilliant, and magisterial,” and I would not hestitate for a nanosecond to apply those adjectives to Trifonov’s interpretation on Friday.

From Trifonov’s whirlwind exuberance in the opening two études to the aching tenderness of “Paysage” (No. 3) and serene introspection of “Vision” (No. 6), he drew us into the beating heart of each piece, and whether the tempo was fast or slow, he allowed each movement to unfold gracefully and naturally. In the operatic drama of “Mazeppa” (No. 4), his control of Liszt’s frenetic parallel octaves surging in opposite directions on the keyboard took my breath away. Trifonov turned “Ricordanza” (No. 9) into a rapturous incantation, refining and elevating the composer’s salon sighs into spiritual ecstacy.

Trifonov’s account of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the puzzling, two-movement Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111, also brought his audience onto holy ground. In the first movment, he glided between the composer’s explosive assertions and mystical reflections with the calm assurance of a Hindu swami, and his “Arietta,” the second movement, proved an extended benediction in which he artfully sustained Beethoven’s ardent aspirations over the composer’s subtlest structural development.

As an organist, I always hold my breath when approaching a piano transcription of a major J. S. Bach organ piece. The Franz Liszt adaptation of Bach’s great Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, however, treats this towering Bach work honorably, and Trifonov made it sound spectacular. His patient rubato in the Fantasy conjured the grandeur of a gothic cathedral, and his elegant articulation and metrical precision made the Fugue dance with salutary vigor.

I hope the piano recitalists who will appear at this year’s upcoming La Jolla SummerFest will be warned  that San Diego audiences have already heard Trifonov twice this season, and he has raised the bar significantly. That should keep them up practicing even later into the night.

Daniil Trifonov Program

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La Jolla Music Society
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Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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