No one could begrudge the choice by Gramophone’s readership of Daniil Trifonov as Artist of the Year. Wherever he has played people have been enthralled. It has been claimed that among pianists a talent such as his is a phenomenon that appears no more than two or three times in a generation, if that. In the five years since winning the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions Trifonov has made a successful career on terms that are his own and established himself everywhere as someone we shall always want to hear.
Talent, let it be remembered, is only the start of it; plenty of exceptional young pianists have that. There has to be vision and persistence as well, and the long view. Perhaps the astonishing thing about him in the years so far has been the ready achievement of an ideal balance of feeling and intellect that it takes most experienced players half a lifetime to reach. You sense the acuteness of his listening, which guides him towards a precise idea of the sounds he requires and their realization. As someone wisely said, the best kind of technique comes from knowing what you’re doing. And a touch of humility never comes amiss, as if he were saying: ‘the music’s enough, actually – it’s not about me’.
In piano competitions as in others, there are winners and losers and no doubt some sporting ambitions. I’m writing at the time of the Rio Olympics – but may we stand back for a moment and reflect that, at the top, we honour performers for their differences and individuality and ability to open up new realms of expression, not for their virtuoso prowess.
The DG Rachmaninov ‘Variations’ recording is brilliantly supportive of this Award. Complementing the Paganini Rhapsody are the two solo sets of variations on themes by Chopin and Corelli and a suite of five pieces called Rachmaniana by Trifonov himself. Like his idol, he is a composer (from his earliest years) as well as a dazzling player. You could say that at age 25 he is still finding his voice, but composition studies are part of his life at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and watch out: his Piano Concerto, premiered at the Verbier Festival at the end of July, is a big advance. I sense that Trifonov is not going to be the kind of pianist in the coming years who writes a bit of music now and then. Like all serious keyboard practitioners throughout history, one does both, even if your composing abilities turn out, for some, to be modest. At least they will remind you, as you sit down at the instrument, that without the composer you wouldn’t be there.
I recall the three culminating evenings at his Wigmore Hall residency earlier this year, as many others will, and especially the recital with Matthias Goerne – performed without interval, starting with Berg and finishing with the Brahms Four Serious Songs, with Schumann, Wolf and Shostakovich along the way. The focus on the unity of words and music, of voice and piano, was unrelenting and extraordinary. It is not just Rachmaninov that Daniil does well! A final thought: whenever I’ve heard him I’ve had the impression he has unlocked the secret of leaving himself open, during the performance to find, and feel, something afresh. Stephen Plaistow
The 2016 Artist of the Year Award is sponsored by Fazioli