What do you do if you can play anything?
Perhaps you travel the world winning competitions. Record three albums of Chopin, all four of Rachmaninov’s backbreaking piano concertos, and all Liszt’s concert etudes and work your way through your fellow Russian composers. In an anniversary year — when every orchestra programs even more Beethoven than they usually do — you decide to play all five of his piano concertos. After blazing through the list of Romantic showpieces, perhaps turn your attention to the music of J.S. Bach and family. But this isn’t really what I mean.
What do you do if you can play anything? If the technical obstacles that mortals navigate like bouldering rock climbers have been shrunk to skipping stones in your hands? If vicious lightning runs and tricky contrapuntal passages that drive aspiring pianists to madness have become mere opportunities to choose between infinite possibilities of attack, sustain and release?
In Saturday night’s concert at Chenery Auditorium for the Gilmore Festival, Daniil Trifonov’s answer to that question was simple. You just make music, but you make music that other people wouldn’t think to make, can’t make or couldn’t even conceive.
Trifonov began Saturday’s performance with Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata No. 3 Op. 36 (1917), a challenging piece of early-20th century modernism by the Ukrainian-born Polish composer with knotty Viennese dissonance tempered by moments of parallel-moving French harmonies. Crouching poised over the keys, hair dangling past his chin towards the floor, raising up off of his seat in effort or exultation, Trifonov was all vectors of direction and force.
Many renditions of the Szymanowski tend to foreground the dissonant elements, but in conjunction, Trifonov’s the next piece, Debussy’s Pour le piano, these small-scale structures of chord-voicing or scale choice — and the pianistic demands required to achieve them — faded from significance. Trifonov’s absolute command of those small-scale problems focused attention instead on large-scale thematic elements, confidently sketching the topographic contours of a forest where others spend lifetimes drawing individual trees. It isn’t that he elided specifics; Trifonov pronounced each phoneme of Pour le piano with a clarity in contrast to the over-pedaled wash of practice-room Debussy that I often hear from my office at Kalamazoo College. That precision and confidence allows the ear to focus on other things.
In the third piece, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, that attention to theme and gesture and was turned on its head: memorable bits of material undercut by incongruous arrangement, melodies abandoned just on the verge of comprehensibility, motifs repeated just past the point of good taste, tripping into irony.
Finally, after intermission, Trifonov revealed the endpoint to this focus on thematic development in Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F minor, written when Brahms was 20 and not yet known for that principle that Arnold Schoenberg would later call “developing variation.” Where the larger melodic gestures of Szymanowski and Debussy can in lesser performers be obscured by stylistic particularities, in the Brahms there is only theme and its transformation infused into a classical frame. Whenever we heard material that could have registered as mid-19th century German filler, Trifonov would bring out a note to reveal that this too was created out of Brahm’s melody. When a passage introduced a pitch that hadn’t appeared in the initial melodic statement, it sang out a bit above the rest of the line, piping up to declare “I am not an exercise, I too am music.”
Trifonov played two encores following the scheduled program, announcing neither from the stage. The first piece was “Bist du bei, geh ich mit Freuden” (If you are with me, I go with joy), an aria by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel familiar to audiences from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook. In Trifonov’s hands, this came as a sonic and emotional refresher, intimate Bach-family Hausmusik after the program’s pyrotechnics.
Following a second ovation, he returned for a different kind of intimacy. Along with other Russian artists, Trifonov has been subject to criticism for a perceived lack of public denunciation of the Russian war against Ukraine. The editorial board of the Kansas City Star wrote an op-ed advocating for the cancellation of his April 24th performance on the grounds that his public calls for peace should have included enumerations of Russian war crimes. The Gilmore has thankfully resisted any moves to cancel performances by Russian-born artists, no doubt understanding that while some may ascribe to Russian artists a particular responsibility to condemn Russian army atrocities, people with family and loved ones subject to Russian state control also face vastly greater consequences for their public statements than, say, op-ed writers in Kansas City.
As it is, on Saturday night Trifonov said nothing about Ukraine, or war or Russia. In fact, he said not a single word on stage the entire evening. However, for his second unannounced encore, Trifonov performed a piece entitled Elegy, written in 1902 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. A sad, singing F# minor melody in swaying nine that builds to a climax of right-hand octaves over a dancing left, listeners might have assumed it a less-known piece by Chopin given Trifonov’s mastery of that repertoire. But Saturday night’s elegy was a Ukrainian one, not Polish. Drenched in sweat and visibly tired from almost two hours of athletic performance, the pianist poured all remaining emotion into that Ukrainian elegy and left, still wordless, to his third standing ovation.
After all, if you can play anything, what you do is make music.