It’s usually taken as axiomatic that while pianists reach their technical peak at twenty, they need much longer to hone their artistry, and one of the merits of the Southbank’s current International Piano Series is that it’s allowing us to test this view against reality.
Twenty-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor’s Bach had a definitive perfection, but his Chopin still felt like a work-in-progress. On the other hand, everything which Behzod Abduraimov played - Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt - indicated that that 22-year-old Uzbek possesses both circus-style technical brilliance and timeless musical wisdom. This week’s thoroughbred was Daniil Trifonov, a 21-year-old Russian who won the latest Tchaikovsky competition, and who must be the only pianist alive whose sound has driven the great Martha Argerich – plus those of us who heard his Wigmore debut, and his Verbier performance this year - to bemused adulation. The word is now out on him, and the packed Queen Elizabeth Hall had a sizeable Russian contingent.
It was a nice idea to open with Scriabin’s early ‘Sonata-fantasy’. Trifonov’s silky touch brought out the atmosphere and suggestiveness of this piece which the composer described as an evocation of the sea in all its moods. Scriabin’s speciality was hearing in colour, and for him this sonata apparently had the bluish-white of moonlight: those of us not blessed with synaesthesia got something just as special, thanks to the way Trifonov let the main melody shine through its filigree ornamentation, and to the impression of floating weightlessness with which he ended the Andante.
That was the hors d’oeuvre: Trifonov’s real business lay with Liszt’s ‘Sonata in B minor’ and Chopin’s ‘Preludes’. His achievement with Liszt’s switchback journey through heaven and hell was to make it appear seamless and, by terracing his sound, to suggest vast distances: the lyricism had a visionary quality, and the fury was conveyed with a light and steely touch. But there were times when the detail was swallowed, and this defect became more serious with the Chopin. Trifonov was clearly striving to find the poetry in those wonderful miniatures, but the fastest Preludes simply passed in a blur; given the fact that every note has its own necessity, that amounted to a travesty. With Chopin’s heroic voyage through the keys, intermittent beauty is not enough: an over-arching vision is required, and that needs time to evolve. Ars longa.