Zellerbach Hall was on the verge of rupture the night of April 28, metamorphosing into flint and stone as Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov strode onstage. Teetering on the edge of combustive strike, the spark was immediate and all-consuming. With breathing room denied before the piano’s first flaring note, Trifonov instantaneously enveloped the theater in liquid vigor.
The performance marked the musician’s debut solo recital at Cal Performances, studding another scintillating star into the Grammy winner’s constellated list of achievements. Lauded by international competitions and classical music charts alike, Trifonov brandishes expertise in both hand and pen as a pianist-composer extraordinaire — a combination that swathes his rutilant performances with the remarkable insight of a musical pioneer. Possessing reactive technical virtuosity and blazing artistic insight, Trifonov personifies the lush profundity of modern classical music as an astounding contemporary talent.
Furnished in the dramatic spotlight against Zellerbach Hall’s phantom darkness, Trifonov tripwired into Szymanowski’s “Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 36” with lightning velocity, launching into its convoluted presto. Nursing susurrous pianissimos with reeling turbulence, his ferocity and intuition bled into the reflective, ardent strength of the adagio movement.
Indomitable fury crystallized as Trifonov’s nimble prowess danced frenetically through the scherzo’s hammering, insistent ire. The movement’s flailing incessance crescendoed to baffling heights with each increment of vehemence, annealed by the pianist’s methodical intensity. As the sonata’s spiraling fugue peaked with battering suffocation, a pompous flourish severed the piano’s buffeting voice — a resolution secured only by Trifonov’s uncanny ability to wrest a dignified tension from Szymanowski’s seething melody.
Dipping into the impressionistic Debussy, the program forayed into the composer’s opalescent “Pour le piano, L. 95” suite with the rippling commencement of its prélude. Featuring fluttering melodies cradled in an eddying whirl of eloquent, granular notes, each treble tone was articulated with smooth-textured precision and bright power, seamlessly unraveling a satin-sonic lattice from Trifonov’s agile hands. Famous for its innovative recall of the antiquated harpsichord, “Pour le piano, L. 95” has reinvention written in its inky blood, excavated incisively by Trifonov’s trailblazing adroitness.
Like interlocking fingers — warm, with intimate assurity — the suite’s sarabande slotted its chords into ruminative parallel harmonies. Armed with clarion tendresse and contemplative radiance, Trifonov was fiercely attuned to the piano’s tonal range, slipping from the movement’s legato euphony into the toccata’s titillating luster. Extracting exuberance from Debussy’s authoritative clarity, the melody flowed with almost sentient expression, undulating with charisma.
Trailing the end of Debussy’s invigorated suite, Trifonov’s galvanization of Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms, Op. 17” unfolded with a draconian, skittering tempestoso. With scorching dynamism driven by the composer’s penchant for erratic musical upheaval, the opening movement adopted the piece’s titular snark. Evincing a derisive tone, Trifonov extricated each wry melody with penetrative attitude. Nestled in the rubato of the composition’s irrepressible second movement and the ringing dissonance of the third, Trifonov’s temperamental smanioso ached in a melancholically trancelike fashion. Sundering the program’s first half was the piece’s conclusive precipitosissimo — the ambling melody of which made an inquisitive exploration into the piano’s more tenebrous tonal colors.
Chasing the concert’s intermission, Trifonov propelled Brahms’s “Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5” to spectacular heights, overlaying the first movement’s grand principal subject with the mellifluous poeticism of its honeyed midsection. Harvesting translucent, tinkling textures from the andante, Trifonov’s rolled chords uncoiled into the frenzied, portentously ebullient scherzo. Between its perilously regal themes, a dulcet litany surfaced to soothe the movement’s jolting progression.
After carrying the sonata’s ominous intermezzo into its final movement — an impassioned rondo with effulgent, zealous glamor — the concert culminated with Trifonov’s triple-encore confection. Vivifying the notes of Stölzel’s operatic “Bist du bei mir” and Lysenko’s “Elegy Op. 41, No. 3,” the supernal musician ended on Bach’s infamous “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with a coy smile, lacing its elysian tenderness with optimism.
Trifonov embodies the careful attentiveness required of a sagacious pianist with the casual brilliance of a rare musical maven — a fact made more evident than ever at the concert’s terminus. As he receded into the backstage’s spectral umbra and bade farewell to his audience, lingering in the air remained the vestiges of his transcendental command, reverberating enduringly through the edges of the night.
Contact Esther Huang at [email protected].