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Believing in good and evil

A demonic element: Daniil Trifonov's bone-chilling recital is more than technical mayhem

As if provoked by a malevolent specter, Daniil Trifonov's pose mutated cautiously and deliberately, metamorphosing from a handsome young twentysomething performing Franz Liszt's Frühlingsglaube from 12 Lieder von Franz Schubert to a malformed posessed hunchback hovering over the piano, his long slender fingers forged in a bizarre mudra reminiscent of F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu.

Schubert lived a century before the 1922 German Expressionist horror film. But at the hands of Trifonov, Liszt's transcription of "Die Stadt" from Schubert's last song cycle, Schwanengesang, captured a sinister darkness which would compel anyone listening to believe that the metaphysical strife between good and evil exists.

At that bone-chilling moment, whatever was possessing Trifonov showed its face. As if encroaching on something forbidden, the audience sat frozen. I had an impulse to turn away in fear, but I stayed transfixed in aesthetic enchantment, from the work's opening low bell tolls to the chordal exposition to the rhapsodic conclusion, all in the appropriate key of C minor. 

Fitting for late Schubert given the composer's tenor. When he passed in 1828, his last musical request was to listen to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor

 I have to wonder if at the end of the performance, wickedness triumphed over virtuosity, not unlike Schubert's music portrays Heinrich Heine's text.

That's how the recital of the Grand Prix, First Prize and a Gold Medal-winner of the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011, gold medalist at the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv and third place-victor at the 2010 Warsaw's Chopin Competition unfolded at Society for the Performing Arts' Wednesday night concert at Wortham Theater Center.

I am not the first one to make such an observation about his style. Piano legend Martha Argerich told The Financial Times: "What [Trifonov] does with his hands is technically incredible. It's also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”

There was no doubt that what transpired was what Argerich described. Not to imply that the whole program was a delicious nightmare, albeit there's no denying that Trifonov has the prowess to reveal something beyond what the music suggests. Gorgeous tender sparkling moments were a dime-a-dozen — like in Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 and Claude Debussy's Images, Book 1 — but I have to wonder if at the end of the performance, wickedness triumphed over virtuosity, not unlike how Schubert's music portrays Heinrich Heine's text.

That aura went away quickly when Trifonov accepted applause with humble self-assurance, the kind that's earned from killing it in the competition circuit and landing hundreds of solo engagements.

 There's something mystical about how he physically connects with the ivories. Trifonov risks sonority for affect.

What's peculiar is that one would expect an evening of big muscle piano works suffused with technical mayhem. Sure, there was plenty of pyrotechnics in Chopin's Études, Opus 10, and in two of the three encores — Liszt's La campanella from Grandes études de Paganini and Trifonov's own arrangement of themes on Strauss' Die Fledermaus — but in parsing through the playbill, it is in the introspective passages where Trifonov shines with a palette of tonal colors. 

Despite his droopy longish thin dirty blond Justin Bieber-esque hair, Trifonov is a young artist that commands respect. He shows restraint. He isn't hesitant to hold back, pull the pace and allow a sotto voce tension to intensify. And when Trifonov lets loose and reaches for those climatic fortissimos, there's a lucid rationale behind his musical choice.

It's when listeners can breathe. 

There's something mystical about how he physically connects with the ivories. Trifonov risks sonority for affect. With a light touch that barely brushes the keyboard, his thoughts are present but emerge hazy from afar.

I admit it can be a bit of a cliché when artists program works rooted in their cultural spirit. The Nizhny Novgorod-born 20-year-old didn't present anything Russian. No Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky. I suppose the closest was Chopin.

But why not indulge the traditionalist in all of us? Throw me a bone next time? 

Trifonov is still in school at the Cleveland Institute of Music studying under the tutelage of Sergei Babayan. It's intoxicating to fancy what can come of this rising star as he matures into his thirties and beyond.

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