Special to the Eagle
LENOX -- Every year seems to bring another young virtuoso sensation from Russia or China to these shores and mainstream him or her into American concert life.
The current nominee is Daniil Trifonov, the 22-year-old Russian pianist who closed out Tanglewood’s recital-chamber music season with a solo recital Thursday night. In a program of Scriabin, Liszt and Chopin, he unmistakably showed his virtuoso bona fides. Thunder and whispers emanated from the Ozawa Hall stage.
This is a musician in the making. You could hear a musical intelligence and intent at work behind his effects. Much of the time, though, they were still only thunder and whispers.
It was enough to make you wonder: Thoughtful, deeply musical American pianists of a younger generation, such as Jonathan Biss and Jeremy Denk, enjoy respectable careers at lower echelons of concert life, out of the big marquee’s glow. Why this quest for young champions from abroad?
Of course, virtuoso pianists, from Rachmaninoff and Horowitz and before, have long been a Russian export, though they were from older generations. And, of course, we sent Van Cliburn to Russia. Still, the balance seems off.
The tall, slender, businesslike Trifonov came with more than virtuoso credentials. During the 2010-11 season, he swept three major competitions, with first prize in the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky and third prize in the Chopin. His career took off.
At Tanglewood, it was as a competition winner, not a finished musician, that he seemed to appear. The general effect of the playing was a swing from extreme to extreme: loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow. Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes, Opus 28, were varied by not only the composer’s designations but also heightened contrasts in playing.
Take the famous No. 15, the "Raindrop." Trifonov brought a lovely, dreamlike quality to the quiet opening and closing sections, but hammering at the stormy middle section seemed to negate what had gone before and would come after. (Real raindrops fell shortly afterward as a thunderstorm arrived.) Other thoughtful effects came in the somber tone of No. 9 and the balance between hands in No. 13.
Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2, the curtain-raiser, showcased Trifonov’s technical prowess as he conjured up the half-mad composer’s vision of an ocean’s calm and furies. The early "sonata-fantasy" also conjured ghosts of Schumann, Liszt and Chopin.
Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is an invitation to showmanship by pianists, but -- speaking of oceans -- it contains depths of musical and emotional substance that this episodic performance only hinted at. Slow, contemplative passages, such as the one before the central fugue, were drawn out to the breaking point. Bravura passages cannonaded. When, near the end, the majestic climax arrived, its power had already been spent. The effect was lost.
The audience received the program ecstatically. Trifonov kept people happily inside with encores while the thunderstorm flashed and rumbled through.