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Trifonov's Triumph: Tchaikovsky, Twice Over

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov — a once-in-a-generation artist at just 21?
Roger Mastroianni
courtesy of the artist
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov — a once-in-a-generation artist at just 21?

At just 21 years old, Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, the most recent winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition, is zooming into the classical music stratosphere — and with his new album he's out to prove he's here to stay.

Born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky), Russia in 1991, Trifonov studied at Moscow's Gnesin Academy of Music; since 2009, he has been at the Cleveland Institute of Music studying with Sergei Babayan. In addition to his Tchaikovsky Competition triumph, Trifonov has taken first prize and three special prizes at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, as well as the bronze medal at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. He is a competition winner who brings shape and meaning to even the most hackneyed and familiar concertos; his firepower at the keyboard has depth, color and line.

Tchaikovsky Competition chairman Valery Gergiev has become a real mentor to and champion of Trifonov; it's very much worth noting that the last pianist Gergiev took under his wing, was one Evgeny Kissin, back in the mid-1980s. When Trifonov came to New York last October to play at Carnegie Hall with the Mariinsky orchestra and Gergiev, it was a stunning success. The pianist delivered the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto — the piece that has become his international calling card — with fierce power and precision, coupled with a really intense musicality. And Gergiev isn't the only celebrity enamored of Trifonov's playing: In an interview Martha Argerich gave last year, she said, "He has everything and more."

Still, Trifonov seems to be working hard to assure listeners that he's not just a flash-and-dazzle guy. The second half of this album features a selection of solo works, including Tchaikovsky's Un poco de Chopin, Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60; Schumann's Liebeslied and an array of Schubert songs arranged by Liszt: "Erlkonig," "Fruhlingsglaube," "Die Forelle," "Auf Dem Wasser zu singen" and "Die Stadt." This portion of the album is more uneven. Trifonov floats the Barcarolle with easy grace, but the "Erlkonig," which should be a harrowing five-minute horror tale, instead takes on a weird and inappropriate prettiness. But on the whole, this album is a snapshot of a very promising talent.

Meanwhile, if you haven't yet heard Trifonov live, keep your ear to the ground. Despite the fact that he's still — at least on paper — a student in Cleveland, he's been engaged as a soloist by the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a constellation of European orchestras. His recital schedule stretches from Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center to the Berlin Philharmonie and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Will he play the Tchaikovsky No. 1 everywhere? Only time will tell. But if he's going to have a calling card, it's a good one to keep at the ready.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.