Daniil Trifonov

Transcendental: Daniil Trifonov Plays Franz Liszt

by John Garratt

9 November 2016

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov plays the part of the Transcendental-Liszt with alarming ease.
cover art

Daniil Trifonov

Transcendental: Daniil Trifonov Plays Franz Liszt

(Deutsche Grammophon)
US: 7 Oct 2016
UK: 7 Oct 2016

Franz Liszt was a piano superstar early in his life; by the time he was a teenager, he was considered to be one of the world’s best musicians to ever take up the instrument, touring constantly and earning acclaim by combining skill with showmanship. It wasn’t until much later that he became such a noteworthy composer. (Facts such as these are important to keep in mind when we are tempted to dismiss a classical music prodigy simply because they haven’t “been around” or “lived the life” that such difficult music demands.)

Russian Pianist Daniil Trifonov’s career has also enjoyed an early start, and judging by his double album Transcendental: Daniil Trifonov Plays Franz Liszt, no hubris is about to get in the way. A review of the prodigy’s solo recital at Carnegie Hall seems to imply that Trifonov is in his comfort zone when performing Liszt. Considering that Liszt’s “Édtudes” have the potential to put one’s fingers in knots, Daniil Trifonov’s rendition of the material is impressive.

Normally, etudes were an excuse for a composer to turn an exercise into a succinctly composed piece of music—or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, Liszt’s “Études d’Exécution Transcendate”, which takes up all of this collection’s first disc, is nothing of the sort. His difficult fingerings were not a tool to improve your technique, but rather a way of achieving new sounds on the piano. Trifonov actually explains it pretty well in the package’s liner notes: “Liszt’s technical virtuosity is just a means to evoke extremes of emotion”.

As the fingers fly, you’re not supposed to be focusing on the incredible amounts of ink spilled in getting Liszt’s ideas onto paper—you’re supposed to think of classical music’s ongoing quest to upgrade itself. If Beethoven dragged the art form into the Romantic era, then Franz Liszt and Claude Debussy were giving it an impressionism makeover. For the 12th movement of the “Transcendentals”, his use of the sustain peddle is blindingly liberal (considering how many notes he needs to play in a given ascension). I didn’t know that people tolerated that kind of shenanigans in the 19th century. For the fifth movement, all of Trifonov’s hammer strokes are frighteningly uniform. I genuinely don’t know how people like him do this kind of thing.

The second CD is made up of three works—“Two Concert Etudes”, “Three Concert Etudes”, and “Grandes Études de Paganini”, the last obviously being a set of etudes bases on a work by Nicolò Paganini. The publication numbers don’t appear to be too far apart from one another, leading one to believe that they were composed close to one another in Liszt’s timeline. The music on the second disc isn’t as jaw-droppingly stupefying as the works on disc one, but keep in mind that “Études d’Exécution Transcendate” already sets the bar absurdly high in technical proficiency. The fact that Daniil Trifonov can still inject some personality into the mirage of notes demanded on him should be reason enough to not only invest one’s time in Transcendental, but to continue the pianist’s deserved acclaim as well.

Transcendental: Daniil Trifonov Plays Franz Liszt


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