Daniil Trifonov: The anti-virtuoso in an age of virtuosos
Is mastery for its own sake passé, or does the Russian pianist signal a new era of postvirtuosity in music and out?
On hearing he won a Grammy Sunday, Daniil Trifonov did a rather odd thing, at least for an elite classical artist.
He said that he loved the whole idea of the Grammys. There was no hint of superiority on the 26-year-old pianist's part, technically or artistically, although the possibility was promised given the show's other notable keyboard stars were Lady Gaga, swathed in white, and Sir Elton John, swathed in sweat.
No way. Trifonov was flat-out into it. (This was his fourth Grammy nomination, after all.) "A major goal of mine is to bring music like this, which has the capacity to both thrill and enrapture, to a much greater audience," he said in a media statement. "This Grammy Award no doubt helps toward that goal."
A few days later in the week, Tifonov expanded on his response in an e-mail to me. The pieces for the winning CD, Liszt's Transcendental Études were chosen "because they all have a story" and not for "being challenging technically."
Trifonov is arguably today's leading classical virtuoso. Dozens upon dozens of oh-my-gosh reviews have preceded his Thursday Koerner Hall concert, helping sell it out in short order. "Creates a furor," was The New Yorker's way of including him in the list of great furor-creating pianists of the past 200 years or so.
And Trifonov has charm and smarts to burn. Asked once to name his favourite dish, he said: "satellite." He knows how to schmooze critics and crowds alike. Born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, he lives in New York with time spent in Moscow. And he loves playing in Canada. "Koerner is one of my favourite concert halls in this part of the world," he insists. He also understands the city's connection to Glenn Gould. "My favourite recording of his is the Richard Strauss Burlesque (in D minor), an early recording of him with the Toronto Symphony," he says.
For all of his familiarity with the media, his playing continually carries with it a sense of surprise, the gasps coming before the cheers. Yet Trifonov is emerging as the anti-virtuoso virtuoso. His technique is not about thundering histrionics, but quickness, lightness of touch and an effortless ability to glide the music's meaning along – virtuosity that hides itself away.
In our e-mail exchange, Trifonov explains further. "Technique should always be at the service of the music of the composer, not just for the sake of affect."
So this raises the question: Given his popularity, is virtuosity for its own sake passé?
Or does Trifonov, among others, signal an arriving era of postvirtuosity in music and out. Virtuosity in one form or another has yielded to the higher demand of hypervirtuosity. Get up earlier. Work out harder. Play hard. Play harder. Athletes – avatars for such trends – are faster, stronger, even bigger than ever before; they're much smarter about how to reach and maintain such peak performance. (Toronto's piano star Stewart Goodyear combines music-making and physical endurance with his all-day all-32 Beethoven Sonatas marathons.)
In music – and the notion of virtuosity was once almost entirely associated with musical performance – it once divided the greats from the near-greats. "I have found that people who claim that technique is not an important thing in piano playing simply do not possess it," Moriz Rosenthal, the flashy 19th-century pianist, sniffed disdainfully at the more digitally challenged among his peers.
Over the past 20 or so years, a freakish technique is expected across the musical spectrum. The prodigious playing that made Vladimir Horowitz such a phenomenon at his 1928 Carnegie Hall debut, is now equalled – even bettered in outstanding cases – in music academies worldwide.
"There are increasingly more high-trained virtuosi than ever before," says James Anagnoson, Dean of the Royal Conservatory's The Glenn Gould School and Goodyear's teacher. "They may not have more technique than Rachmaninoff or Horowitz, but what's different is how many there are. We have 12-year-olds who could get into any graduate school in North America. But the true artists are as rare as ever before. It's analogous to sport. Very often, the kids who are extraordinary at 12 are not extraordinary at 25. Stewart developed the technique he needed to play what he did. Tifonov is a true artist: You can hear it in the phrasing he does."
Trifonov's postvirtuosic playing has its capacity to surprise, though. Listeners blown away by brilliant passage work in one section aren't prepared for the sensuousness of the next. The repertoire chosen for his Toronto concert – much of it taken from his new Chopin Evocations album on Deutsche Grammophon – heads deep into the heart of the Romantic Era, allowing for about as much heartfelt playing as can be imagined.
Yes, maybe this does represent a turn back to the romantic repertoire. But channelling Chopin is in itself sending a signal – rather like those newer, smarter businesses encouraging their employees to get plenty of sleep – that slow and soft may be the new fast and furious.
Peter Goddard is the author of The Great Gould.