Review: A Star Pianist Finally Lets Us See Him Sweat

Posted May 6, 2018 5:18 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Audiences are not used to seeing the pianist Daniil Trifonov sweat. Whatever intensity he brings to daunting pieces by Rachmaninoff or Liszt, he never appears pushed to his limits. Everything seems to come so easily.

That changed Friday, when Trifonov performed the seventh and final program of his ambitious Perspectives series for Carnegie Hall, a recital called “Decades.” The idea was to survey the 20th century by playing something from each decade — not short stopover pieces, but arduous, seminal works. He wanted, he said in an interview on Saturday, to dramatically show the “evolution of piano writing,” which was “so rapid in the 20th century.”

Trifonov, also a composer, does play his own works, full of Romantic fervor and Scriabin-like colorings. But Trifonov doing Stockhausen?

Despite (and perhaps because of) its implausibility, the recital was a triumph. That it was clearly a herculean effort requiring tremendous mental focus and physical stamina — you could sometimes hear him breathing heavily — made it all the more impressive. I have seldom heard an artist put so much effort into a single concert.

The audience in Zankel Hall was asked to refrain from applauding between pieces, which allowed Trifonov to create a spell, a continuous flow of shifting musical experiments. Of course, it also meant that he could not take a little breather after even the most exhausting works.

He began with Berg’s single-movement sonata, completed in 1908, which blends the last embers of late Wagnerian style with bursts of early-20th-century expressionist angst. Trifonov brought striking clarity to the wandering lyrical lines that thread through the music and savored the pungent sonorities of dense, chromatic chords.

He played Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms” with pummeling energy and steely sound, and then conveyed the crunchy, pulsing brutality of Bartok’s “Out of Doors” suite. He emphasized the flinty harmonic writing and jagged edges of Copland’s 1930 Piano Variations, this composer’s most modernist work for the instrument. Trifonov may not have caught the echoes of bebop in passages where piano lines dart around nervously. Still, I loved his stern, chiseled take on the music.

He then turned to a contemplative selection from Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus” and the music’s mystical, tart beauties provided a welcome contrast — that is, until the piece broke into ecstatic wildness, exhilaratingly played by the tireless Trifonov.

After intermission — yes, he gave himself (and us) an intermission — he teased out the brash humor in selections from Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” which led effectively into Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück IX,” with its mix of biting clusters and jittery flights. I’ve never heard John Adams’ gurgling “China Gates” played with such delicacy and subtle colorings.

Trifonov ended with John Corigliano’s inventive, mercurial “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” from 1985. In a last-minute decision, Trifonov dropped the 10th piece that had been announced, the representative of the 1990s: Thomas Adès’ “Traced Overhead.” (He said that the original second half was disproportionately long and that the Corigliano made a more dramatic ending.)

The enthusiastic audience seemed more than grateful for a riveting nine-decade journey.