Using mostly the variable of finger pressure, Daniil Trifonov creates an astonishing variety of colors. Often, in the piano’s higher register, he makes the instrument sound metallic, as if it were prepared. Simple rhythmic accompaniments turn rich and propulsive. In one Shostakovich song, he somehow manages to give a Bösendörfer the exactly timbre of muted trumpets. Occasionally this focus on tone, rather than line and gesture, becomes a flaw. I saw Trifonov in recital with the baritone Matthias Goerne at the Kammermusiksaal of the Berlin Philharmonic on January 6, where Trifonov is artist in residence for 2018-19 season. Trifonov has a tendency toward stasis, occasionally seeming to enjoy each individual chord so much that he forgets the music. This happened in the third movement of Alban Berg’s “Vier Gesänge” Op. 2, and in the outro of the last song of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” “Die alten, bösen Lieder,” which came across as interminable. Mostly, though, the combination of Trifonov and Goerne’s broad sonic palettes was entrancing. Trifonov’s album covers for Deutsche Grammophon have the aesthetic of a made-for-TV spy movie: good suits, trench coats, old-fashioned trains. In reality, Trifonov is a more familiar type, the shy, awkward classical musician who is most expressive when talking about the details in a given score. Three people I talked to about Trifonov used similar language to describe him: “reserved” in social situations, “intense” in musical ones. After the Philharmonie recital, Goerne gave Trifonov a bear hug, and Trifonov responded limply, with one arm hanging at his side. I met Trifonov the morning after the recital for coffee.

VAN: I wanted to ask about your performance of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” the first song from “Dichterliebe.”

Daniil Trifonov: The slow tempo?


In Schumann it often happens that the music doesn’t go with the text in the most logical way. It’s called “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” but there is so much sadness and nostalgia in the music. In previous recordings, Matthias [Goerne] takes a faster tempo. But starting with the very first concert we did together, we wanted to create this more vulnerable atmosphere. It’s like “Ich grolle nicht”: the text suggests one thing, but then the music is completely different.

I’m playing Schumann’s “Bunte Blätter” Op. 99 in my solo recital. The first piece is in major, but it also has so much nostalgia. There are some recordings which are on the faster side, for example Richter’s, but Vladimir Sofronitsky plays it much slower. Schumann gives a rather vague description of the tempo, he just writes “not fast.” In that particularly piece, I found Sofronitsky’s version to be closest to me. I guess it’s something along the same lines in the first song of “Dichterliebe.”

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Did you and Matthias Goerne disagree about anything in the interpretation of the program? How do you choose which version to take?

We were recording this program in June and in October. We’d record once, then listen to how it sounded, exchange ideas. Of course there’s a general idea and direction we have to agree on. Then it’s what works organically. It’s about very intensive listening.

How long are you able to do that kind of intensive listening before you need a break?

It’s not easy. The most difficult piece I ever played in that sense was the Schnittke Piano Concerto. It’s such a powerful piece, with a lot of long, suspended notes that need very intensive listening. To me it’s one of his best works. But it’s incredibly demanding on the concentration. I wouldn’t be able to play it more than three times in a week.

I felt something similar last night: the program wasn’t long, but I was trying to listen intensively, and I felt a bit exhausted by the end.

The music is very intense, of course. But generally I’m used to long programs. In my recital program this year, the first half alone is an hour and 15 minutes. Music of Beethoven and Schumann. And then the second half is just half an hour, the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8. With encores it’s about two hours.

Is there a particular reason for that?

It just happens like that. I start choosing a program; I also often consult with my teacher, Sergei Babayan. Somehow it always ends up being longer than expected, and then I almost never take out anything. In my recital program, I was thinking maybe I should take out some pieces from “Bunte Blätter,” because many people don’t play the complete cycle. But after working on it, I realized I was so closely connected with each piece. For me it only makes sense as a cycle. Not only could I not take out any of the pieces, I had to do all of the repeats.

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You used the word “intense” a few times already. I also spoke with people who said you are very intense during the rehearsal process. Do you think that’s true?

I usually try to be, I guess, productive? I try to hear what’s going on, what the problems are, and I try to fix them. It has to do with experience. As a student, I’d come up with different ways of practicing. After a while, it becomes easier to spot what’s going on, and what the most efficient way is to practice certain spots. What is the weakness in a particular episode? I work on that, and then I just move to the next one.

Yesterday I was actually practicing different repertoire. Matthias and I rehearsed parts of our program of course, but in the morning I was practicing the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto, which I’m doing next, in Vienna. So I had to practice that, plus the material for an upcoming recording.

Does that help you clear your head, when you play other repertoire on the day of a concert?

Maybe. It’s something I do quite often, practicing different repertoire throughout the day. To me, it’s much better to work in advance. I’ll usually work on pieces that I’m supposed to play a week later, even if I’m playing completely different repertoire [before then]. I’m quite used to it.

In one interview, you were asked about your relationship to contemporary music, and you named several composers you love, all of whom are dead. What living composers are you interested in?

I have a program of 20th-century piano music called “Decades,” where each decade is represented by a piece which I thought was very innovative for the piano language. There’s music from the beginning of the 20th century, like Berg’s Piano Sonata and Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms,” Bartók’s “Out of Doors,” and then it goes further to the music of Messiaen, Copland, Ligeti, Stockhausen, and then two living composers, Adams’s “China Gates” and Corigliano’s “Fantasy on an Ostinato.” Perhaps in the future I’ll do more contemporary music.

During my studies the core repertoire was the romantic and classical repertoire. It’s the repertoire which I think is most helpful for young pianists’ musical growth.


Well, there are certain stylistic complexities that might not be so easy to understand for someone from our time. It was a very different period. Compare the music of Rachmaninoff to the music of Prokofiev. Even though it was written so many years ago, Prokofiev feels like music of the modern world. In the music of Rachmaninoff, the whole musical thinking is different. They were contemporaries, but yet they are of two different epochs.

It’s a foundation. It’s very difficult to start building a house from the roof. Even if the roof is extremely different in style from the foundation and the first floor [laughs]. You still need a ground floor.

So you see contemporary music as being based on the whole history of classical music?

There was certainly an evolution. What I’ve noticed about the second half of the 20th century is that composers tended to go toward the spherical: just the sound, existing in a space. There was less emphasis on statements about the time. For example, in the music of Arvo Pärt, Messiaen or Corigliano, there’s more reflection on soundscapes in general, I find.

In the first half of the 20th century we saw complexity being maximalized. With Stockhausen, you have this reflection on how the ear perceives sound. If you compare his work with “Out of Doors” by Bartók, which is very intense, or with Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms,” dissonance is being to achieve complexity; in the second half of the 20th century, in some cases, dissonance is used to achieve simplicity.

It’s just that the evolution was much faster in the 20th century. Styles were changing much more often and much more radically. The first half of the 20th century was probably the most turbulent time in classical music—at least in the piano repertoire. All the five composers in my program from the first half, Berg, Prokofiev, Bartók, Copland and Messiaen, could not be more different from each other. That’s why we sometimes perceive contemporary music as not having so many roots in classical music before: the extremely fast pace of the development of the music before that.

You wrote a Piano Concerto in E-flat Minor in 2012. How has your own music changed since then?

Quite a bit. Of course I’m very rooted in Russian romanticism, the music I was brought up with, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and especially Scriabin, my favorite composer as a teenager. Now I’m working in a somewhat different style. I wrote a Piano Quintet for this summer, and it’s already more…I don’t know if I’d be able to correctly describe it. I do still occasionally use tonal hints and tonal structures.

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You said that pianists should start with the classical and romantic repertoire and build from there. Do you think the same is true for composers? Should they be able to write style copies of historical music before progressing to a contemporary language?

I don’t know if style copies are necessary. For pianists, it’s about the awareness of the repertoire that we play and that we tend to be most connected to. That was something that heavily influenced my compositions earlier on. You know that now being both an instrumentalist and composer is not as common as it used to be in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, there’s still great music being created.

How important do you think it is for a composer to play an instrument very well?

It’s not a requirement, but I find that there are certain things that can be expressed naturally, with a certain fluidity, even just in the way it’s written. There’s some great music that takes a very long time just to read. For example, the Ligeti Piano Concerto. It’s wonderful, one of my favorite piano concertos from the second half of the 20th century. Currently I simply don’t have time to learn it. It’s such a nearly unrealistic undertaking, in terms of time consumption. I don’t see myself doing it in the next 10 years at least.

I read that you try to limit the amount of concerts you play each year.

Next season is going to be not more than 60. I’m trying to spend more time in New York, where I live now. It’s not so easy to achieve. The main problem is trying to make the tours logistically coherent, in the sense that there’s no back-and forth traveling. That makes a big difference.

Also, after the last years of traveling, I find that for me three weeks is an appropriate tour length. Anything longer starts to be more challenging as time progresses. Two months in a row, that’s definitely too much in my opinion. Three weeks of playing, then coming back and having some kind of break, is probably most optimal.

What was the most embarrassing mistake you ever made in a concert?

Ah. Well…it’s good not to underestimate works that you think are in your system already. You think that you’ve already played a certain work many times and that you have it. But then it might backfire.

Of course, there have been a few episodes when there were unwelcome surprises. I once started a piece in the wrong key. It was by Chopin, I think. I had to modulate my way into the actual key. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...