Talent contests are unpredictable, that's why we watch them. Even the ones that are rigged by judges or manipulated by media owners manage to command our attention for the possibility, faint as it may be, that a genius will emerge from nowhere to assert an irrefutable superiority and claim the crown.
That's not quite how it panned out at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. A state event bedevilled from the outset by every kind of chicanery was being cleaned up by the conductor Valery Gergiev and the retired Van Cliburn boss Richard Rodzinski. Their remedy was to stream every session online, worldwide, so the public could form a view at the same time as the judges. From the first round, as we tuned in, it became apparent that there was only going to be one piano winner.
Daniil Trifonov, 20 years old, displayed the artistry and authority of a seasoned master. Less a competition than a coronation, the Tchaikovsky awarded Trifonov not just the first prize and gold medal, but the audience award, a Mozart citation and the admiration of Gergiev, who demanded to conduct his first live recording. If ever there was a runaway winner, this was it.
Trifonov had come third nine months earlier in the Chopin competition in Warsaw and first, weeks before, in the Arthur Rubinstein in Tel Aviv. He was well on his way to an international career. But what we saw and heard in Moscow was a manner of playing that set him, by an invisible cordon, six inches apart from every other living pianist. To describe what he does is not easy. Martha Argerich speaks of a 'demonic element', modified by a unique tenderness. I observed an ethereal detachment, allied to an almost preternatural symbiosis with his audience.
Some weeks after the competition, the lights went out in a new concert hall in Guildford, where Trifonov was playing with the London Symphony Orchestra. The conductor dropped his arms and the orchestra, ears to the soloist, played through to the end. Then, in pitch darkness, Trifonov played solo Chopin, forging a transcendent connection with his audience that none will ever forget.
What has impressed me most is his ability to connect the dots and find coherence in apparently disparate pieces. Where many play the Chopin Etudes as a run of five-finger exercises, Trifonov finds narrative, tells a story, introduces us to a class of difficult characters and tense situations. Hearing him play the Opus 10 set at London's Wigmore Hall, I knew that this was a pianist I wanted to hear for the rest of my life.
Who is Daniil Trifonov? The only child of a pair of musicians who met as university students in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky), he took up a pencil at five years old and started composing. This may have been in imitation of his father, who writes Masses for the Russian Orthodox church, but tests showed that the boy had perfect pitch and he was sent to the best piano teacher in the region.
Having played a concerto at the age of eight, he upped sticks with his family and moved to Moscow so that he could study at the Gnessin School with Tatiana Zelikman, a rigorist who traces her piano lineage to Heinrich Neuhaus, tutor of Richter, Gilels and the rest of the Russian legends.
After nine years, Zelikman sent him to Cleveland to finish his studies with Sergei Babayan, another third-generation Neuhaus pupil. Consistency, tradition and authenticity were the bywords of Trifonov's education. In Cleveland, he knuckled down and worked hard. Babayan told him no pianist had won the Tchaikovsky Competition playing a Chopin concerto. After the victory, instead of hitting the concert trail, Trifonov returned to his teacher to start work on new pieces. 'There is never a time when the teaching has to stop,' says Trifonov.
The only blip in his progress came when, at 13, he slipped on ice on the way to a Zelikman lesson and broke his arm, putting him out of piano action for three weeks. The accident, one suspects, was a huge trauma, but also an affirmation. Trifonov talked about the lay-off to Elijah Ho, of the San Francisco Examiner: 'It was absolute torture for me,’ he confessed. 'Basically, this wasn’t a moment about realizing technique or other things, but about how important music was to me. It was so uncomfortable and so stressful to not be able to play...'
Torn from infancy between composing and playing, this was perhaps the moment when Daniil Trifonov realised that playing mattered most to him in terms of self-expression. That said, he continues to compose, taking lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music and working on his own scores whenever time permits. In a telephone conversation from Tel Aviv, where he returns often by popular request, he tells me that he is writing a piano concerto. He does not let a day pass without touching the piano.
But there's plenty else he's working on, besides. Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs, those shimmering illusions of unattainable beauty, and Arnold Schoenberg's Three Pieces, opus 11, the foundation stones of musical expressionism. He heard the Schoenberg on a Deutsche Grammophon recording by Maurizio Pollini and was smitten. His mind works in eclectic ways, his fingers at their own pace. He broached the Rachmaninov D minor Concerto last season and will follow up soon with the C minor, playing the tougher work first. For his recital debut on DG, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, he plays Liszt's massive B minor Sonata and Chopin's Preludes, opus 28.
But the core of the album is music by Scriabin: the Second Sonata in G sharp minor, also known as the 'Sonata-Fantasy'. Scriabin was a speciality of the tormented Neuhaus, whose wife left him for Boris Pasternak, a Scriabin pupil; when Pasternak died, Neuhaus’s pupil Sviatoslav Richter played Scriabin all night on an upright piano beside the body. The linearity of Russian music is imbued in Trifonov as a matter of first principles.
Success has not gone to his head. Shy, courteous, quick to smile, Daniil Trifonov may never be the life and soul of the party or a public entertainer in the Arthur Rubinstein mould. What he brings to the keyboard is himself, a sensational technique and a sense of destiny. Watch, and you will see that he was born to play. Listen, and be amazed.