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Star wars with Daniil Trifonov, Benjamin Grosvenor and Ingolf Wunder

The old stereotype of the emerging Russian pianist was fast, loud and so p6hysically massive that the New Yorker once ran a cartoon showing a Carnegie Hall-ish poster of a grizzly bear next to a tiny keyboard reduced to rubble.

Not so with Daniil Trifonov, the slim, courtly 21-year-old winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition – even if he does require a piano tuner at intermission. But like many of his generation, he is making his name on his brains rather than his fingers. He can play with the best of them. But the centerpiece of his recent recital tour was the Chopin Preludes Op. 28 (recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon at Carnegie Hall, though I heard him Feb. 7 at Princeton’s McCarter Theater – a highly congenial place for classical concerts). Indeed, Chopin’s series of fragmentary miniatures achieve haiku-like eloquence only among the wise, worldly and  middle aged but also did so with young Trifonov.

Now, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a near-standard calling card for the youngest of the young. The latest is trend seems to be the far more formidable task of performing complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Maybe the Korean pianist HJ Lim didn’t record the best cycle out there when she made her EMI debut with a complete set of the 32 sonatas at age 24 last year, but it showed there’s plenty of talent to be developed in the future and set the world talking. The more seasoned Stewart Goodyear, who for some reason was typed as a Gershwin specialist early on, is playing all 32 in one day in Princeton this spring, having already recorded them all.

A decade ago, Lang Lang, now the grand old man of the pianistic youth culture, was auditioning not with the barnburners he’s now known for but an elegant Haydn sonata and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.1, which worked so well that his supposedly career-making fill-in for Andre Watts in Chicago was more an inevitability than a breakthrough. One could argue that Jeremy Denk built his career as much through his marvelously well-written blog as he did with spellbinding performances of the Charles Ives Concord Sonata. Even though Yuja Wang is playing lots of big standard works these days (somebody has to), she made early, important debuts with the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. I first heard her playing Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 – sublimely.

Trifonov ‘s generation also includes Jan Lisiecki, the 17-year-old Polish/Canadian pianist who made his Deutsche Grammophon recording debut with a pair of Mozart concertos and Ingolf Wunder (yet another DG guy, age 27, who tied for second place in the 2010 Chopin International Competition ahead of Trifonov in third place) whose latest album is a tribute to Vladimir Horowitz that includes Scarlatti and Mozart sonatas that the Russian icon saved for his old age. All are triumphing left and right – and have every reason to. Trifonov even sold out Carnegie Hall, which happens rather seldom with solo keyboard recitals.

They do sometimes show their age – and if they didn’t, one might suspect that they’re artistic space aliens. Hunched over the keyboard not unlike Olli Mustonen, Trifonov’s best moments of poetic insight, sometimes breathtaking, were often in the final seconds that sum up what had come before in each tiny Chopin prelude, like an elegant stroke of Japanese calligraphy. In Liszt’s Sonata in b, he went to all the emotional extremes, laudably, because he could while maintaining an overall sense of architecture that kept the music from ever seeming episodic. Each reiteration of the piece’s recurring motifs had their own meaning and coloring.

Amid all of this, though, he often forgets about surface beauty altogether with a sound that can be non-descript and lacking in depth. Most youthful of all, he rarely meets a note he doesn’t love and insists that you hear them all with a clarity almost equal to that of Marc-Andre Hamelin, but maybe not the taste to use that quality wisely. In the Piano Sonata No. 2 of Scriabin (a composer who always needs a certain amount of organizational intervention), Trifonov lacked prioritization, with wave after wave of notes that gave you little sense of what to hear first. Same thing in the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s great song Widmung: Liszt gussied it up no end, probably under the belief that you need to do something when no singer is present. But smart pianists are singers of sorts who can give the melodic line detailed poetic meaning and make sure the bells and whistles don’t get in the way. Trifonov’s reading was aggressively ornamental. Even this problem, though, is an extremely high-quality one.

As for the other pianists: I recently caught a broadcast of Lisiecki playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic – with passages that came bursting out of the composer’s Biedermeier-era surfaces as if to gratuitously remind you that Schumann did die in a madhouse.

Wunder’s elegance and poetic intelligence makes him perhaps one of the most well-rounded talent among them. Many pianists can play the kind of scintillating Scarlatti heard on his new album Ingolf Wunder 300, but almost none of them play Mozart sonatas in ways so relaxed and genial – and with such an ingratiating legato. But in the Horowitzian spirit of outrageously theatrical transcriptions, Wunder presents John Williams’ theme from Star Wars, perhaps not realizing that such anthem like movie music means to be pithy and repetitive and don’t always leave much room for thematic development needed when the piece is taken out of context and put in a concert setting.

The one pianist of this crowd who just might be an artistic space alien is Benjamin Grosvenor, a 20-year-old Brit I’ve follow assiduously in broadcasts all over Europe, as well as on his new Decca-label album featuring the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 and Ravel Piano Concerto in G. Never have I not heard him boldly re-imagining the music he plays in ways that made complete sense, had conviction right down to the smallest detail but was completely unlike anything I’ve previously heard.

How such depth of brilliance could be housed by somebody so young is enough to make you believe that reincarnation can come with accumulated wisdom. One instance of how my extravagant claims are manifested in sound is heard in the Ravel concerto: Any longtime Ravel listener notices the composer’s lace-like approach toward motivic development in patterns of three. The motif is played twice (the second with a slight variation) though the third statement is more radically transformed and often leads the way to the next motivic trio.

Grosvenor’s performance makes note of that constantly in ways both macro and micro. I particularly love the big, jazzy glissando gesture in the first movement: Usually it’s played as a single flourish, though Grosvenor breaks it down, ever so subtly, into the usual motivic trio with two added echoes. Yet the gesture never feels pulled apart or dissected. It simply reveals itself to you with a sharp focus you’ve never heard before.

During the heyday of Carlos Kleiber, it was often said that the conductor “makes us all into virgins” for his ability to make you hear standard repertoire as if for the first time. Much the same could be said about a good 80 percent of the performances I’ve heard from Grosvenor. I’d even trust him with a Star Wars transcription. But the fact that he doesn’t ask me to make me trust him more.


  1. piano enthusiast and musicologist says

    Interesting that you are trying to make a case about “brains” in classical music, then manage to spend a mere two token sentences on any young women pianists (and at that, only in the context of repertoire selection). What are we to read into this? If Deutsche Grammophon is your yardstick for up-and-coming brainiacs (and it shouldn’t be – watch some of their promotional videos on Youtube for a taste of their dumbing down if you don’t think Wunder’s latest compilation album isn’t already a sign of that), then why not actually bring Alice Sara Ott or Yuja Wang into the conversation?
    And what of the Chopin Competition winner, Yulianna Avdeeva? Why doesn’t she have a DG contract? Maybe she just lacks Lisiecki’s fluffy blond hair…

  2. musicologist says

    Avdeeva is a solid musician, but nothing more than that.
    Wunder’s latest CD program is quite different, but it’s about playing not about the compilation. He is excellent. His recordings are great.
    Trifonov is a very good pianist as well.
    Alice Sara Ott – well… solid, but rarely interesting.
    Yuja Wang – great technique, some things are truly amazing, some are not.

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