The Sound Of Silence

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is accident prone but a worthy successor to Horowitz and Richter

Music

Daniil Trifonov: A kind of concentration that has all but vanished in the Twitter era (Jarosław Roland Kruk CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The first time I heard Daniil Trifonov I wrote that he was “a pianist for the rest of our lives”. This is the rarest of species, an incontrovertible elite. Vladimir Horowitz defined the breed when he burst onto the West in the 1920s with dazzling fingers and an air of fragile permanence. Sviatoslav Richter, impermeably private, left a similar impression when the Soviets finally let him out in 1960.

Nameless others flattered briefly to deceive. Dozens more enjoyed delirious success and an adoring public. But Horowitz and Richter were the rainmakers of the piano, the ones who changed the weather. And I had no doubt, on first hearing or since, that Daniil Trifonov belongs to that mighty handful, that exclusive kuchka of colossi.

What is it about Trifonov that sets him apart from all other pianists? He is, on first sight, the least modern of artists. He wears a dark suit, black tie, often uncomfortably. On stage, he hunches over the keyboard, unaware of the audience. If he uses a score, he is quicker to turn pages than the fastest of attendants. He makes no pause between pieces, stifling applause for an hour or more.

In return, he delivers a modern benefice, the kind of concentration that has all but vanished from our tweet-shattered attention spans. The tension when Trifonov plays is breathless. And, within that grip, he finds narrative where none previously existed. He is the first pianist I have ever heard who plays a set of Chopin Études as if reciting for the first time a Tolstoy novella.

The sound is almost secondary. He often prefers a Fazioli piano to a Steinway, finding its clipped precision best suited to his cloud formation of sonority and silence. No musician since John Cage has used silence so creatively, or sound with such economy. No point asking Trifonov where this idea comes from: it is inimitably his own.

The focus can be terrifying. In a power-cut concert with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, Trifonov carried on playing his part long after the lights went out. Twice I have seen him play with serious injuries. On the first occasion, he tripped on a step, coming out of a yoga session, and suffered mild concussion. On the second, he played a full Wigmore Hall recital in surgical strapping after damaging his wrist in an over-enthusiastic photographic session for his record label.

I sat with him once at dinner after an arduous concert, urging him to eat more than half a desultory lettuce leaf on his plate. Daniil said he felt no hunger. He had worked all morning with a technician trying to “voice” a Fazioli for the 2,788-seat, acoustically frigid Royal Festival Hall. By noon he was talking of trying a Steinway when the Fazioli man finally came up with the right balance. The rest of the afternoon was spent testing it. By 5pm, when Daniil was satisfied, it was too close to the concert to take more than a sip of water without risking discomfort. Afterwards, he was too uplifted to eat. The immersion in music renders him oblivious to most human urges. He is a one-off.

The son of two musicians, born in March 1991 in the closed military zone of Nizhny-Novgorod, he lost a milk-tooth during his first concerto performance and did not meet a foreigner until he went to Moscow to study with Tatiana Zelikman at the Gnessin School of Music. Zelikman, pupil of a pupil of Richter’s teacher Heinrich Neuhaus, had a private collection of American piano LPs. The boy devoured them. At 18, Zelikman cut him loose, sending him to study in Cleveland, Ohio, with Sergei Babayan.

This was selfless and remarkably shrewd. Babayan is a Russian-Armenian of flexible capabilities who showed an intuitive understanding of Daniil’s gifts and the time he would require to develop them. It was a no-pressure relationship and there were few distractions in Cleveland to deflect Daniil from his studies. He made friends, found a girlfriend, listened intently to America’s finest and most consistent orchestra.

A year in, Babayan decided Daniil was ready for the five-yearly Chopin Competition in Warsaw. He wasn’t. In a tough field, he took fourth spot (officially third) behind a Russian, Yulia Andreeva, a Lithuanian and an Austrian.

The next year, he flew to Tel Aviv for the Arthur Rubinstein Competition. At his first performance, a friend of Rubinstein’s said, “We have a genius here.” Daniil made a clean sweep of the prizes.

Weeks later, he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the first fair and open contest since the fall of Communism. But instead of staying to enjoy vodka toasts and the blessings that Valery Gergiev, the competition president, promised for his future, Daniil headed back to his teacher. When Babayan moved to work at Juilliard in New York, Daniil went too. From time to time, they played four-hand in public. Beyond Babayan, Daniil chose his mentors wisely: Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, Menahem Pressler.

Each time I have heard him is an advance on past performance. Dismissive of the tinsel life of the virtuoso pianist, he reserves time for composing and other discoveries. He has formed a recital partnership with the German baritone Matthias Goerne, a symbiotic exploration of poetic visions. In their last set of mortality songs by Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich and Brahms, they gave 90 minutes without interruption to a hall that barely dared to draw breath.

Daniil has no small talk and few extra-neous interests. I would never subject him to the ritual of a media interview. You cannot be sure if he understands a question, so particular is his processing of information. And when he finally delivers a hesitant answer you have to pinch your thigh hard to remember that he is just 25 years old, a soul steeped in a millennium of music, an innocent abroad, perhaps that very Russian creature — a yurodivy, a holy fool.

He is, by any measure known to me, in a class apart. After hearing Daniil Trifonov play, I cannot listen to any other pianist for days after. Whenever he plays, I want to hear more. And we will, we will. For the rest of our lives.