Daniil Trifonov, Piano

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Jeff Spurgeon: There are many ways to get to Carnegie Hall. The subway, a taxi, a walk down 57th Street. You've just found another way to get to this storied performance space. Welcome to Carnegie Hall Live. This concert brings you one of the superstars of the piano world, Daniil Trifonov. Such is the demand to see Trifonov that Carnegie Hall is seating a hundred twenty members of the audience, additional members of the audience, on stage with him.

Backstage at Carnegie Hall. I'm Jeff Spurgeon, and beside me is John Schaefer.

John Schaefer: Yeah, it's a rare occasion, Jeff, when you and I are not seated most closely to the, uh, to the performer. Uh, they've got people arranged in mostly a semicircle, but it's not a complete semicircle, so as Daniil Trifonov looks straight ahead, that part of the stage is clear.

Jeff Spurgeon: Yeah, he sees no one there.

John Schaefer: Still, uh, a rare experience for the audience, and I'm sure for Trifonov as well. And the program he's put together for us is a collection of beefy works. In the first half, works by Rameau, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and then after intermission, the grand Hammerklavier Sonata by Beethoven.

Jeff Spurgeon: Beefy is a wonderful description. Uh, Daniil Trifonov has had about as meteoric a rise in classical music as you can. He's been called without question "the most astounding pianist of our age" The Times of London there. He's won awards and has performed with almost every major orchestra and is enjoying an amazing journey in music.

When we talked to him earlier this week, he told us about how this recital program fits into his musical roadmap.

Daniil Trifonov: This is one of the programs which I created during the time when Covid, there was a lot of free time. So I actually came up with a lot of ideas for the repertoire and there was a number of years, five years, of recital programs that I came up with, and I'm now in the year two of this initial plan.

John Schaefer: Well, uh, when someone asks me what I did during the pandemic, I cannot honestly say I came up with a five-year plan of work, but that's what Daniil Trifonov did. Uh, and the program, as we say, uh, three pieces before intermission and then arguably Beethoven's most difficult piano sonata. I can remember when the Hammerklavier would be considered a thing unto itself.

Jeff Spurgeon: Yeah, right. When it first appeared, it was unplayable for many, many artists. That's just how it was. And the three that come before the Beethoven aren't exactly a walk in the park either. The first thing that we'll hear on the program is a Suite in A minor from the Nouvelle Suite de Pièce de Clavecin, published in the 1720s.

Late keyboard works by Jean Philippe Rameau. This music is highly decorated. Highly ornamented and Trifonov told us that when he began working on these pieces, uh, he looked at a lot of editions that that didn't correspond to what Rameau had specified.

Daniil Trifonov: For some reason, a lot of these ornamentations were omitted and that's a pity because they, I think, were integral part of the music.

Yes, they're a little bit more tricky to do on the modern piano than they are on the harpsichord or on the instrument with, uh, less powerful sound. But that's what makes Rameau so special, is how integrated all the ornamentations are.

John Schaefer: That is Daniil Trifonov talking about the first piece that we'll hear, Rameau's Suite in A minor.

Now, a note about that A minor, because in addition to bringing in a lot of the traditional ornamentation of Baroque music, Trifonov has made another change to this piece. Uh, which historically would have been played on a harpsichord rather than the contemporary piano. And so he is taking the entire piece down a half step to A flat minor.

Now that may not sound like a big change, but when we spoke to him, Trifonov explained it's actually quite a difference.

Daniil Trifonov: It is such a different character. A minor is much more neutral and it's more objective. A flat is much denser. A little bit more dramatic and more expressive, I would say. I found that shifting it to Ab minor actually changes the character to closer to the one that is conveyed on the harpsichord.

Jeff Spurgeon: Danil Trifonov talking about the sound that he's looking in these Rameau pieces. And it's not the sound of A minor, it's the sound of A flat minor. A lot more black keys.

For sure. So, so the work is transcribed from the score that anybody would, uh, would really be looking at. And then after the Rameau, it's a really wonderful Mozart Piano Sonata in F, K.332 is the number. Three movements, beautiful allegro with some contrasting sections, rich and warm middle movement, and then a really bombastic section, too. And, uh, at the end, great stuff.

John Schaefer: The Allegro assai in triple time, yeah. And then the final piece before intermission is a set of 17 variations by Mendelssohn. His Variations Sérieuses, the Serious Variations, which was actually written to help raise funds for a statue of Beethoven. Uh, Beethoven's music was a pretty significant influence on Mendelssohn's style. And Trifonov pointed out that you can actually hear that in these variations.

Daniil Trifonov: What I love about this work is that really you cannot take a single note out. It has an incredible compositional density. And there is actually, right before the D major variation, the only major variation, very beautiful chorale, there is this dramatic D minor variation. which has what seems to me an inversed leitmotif of a 5th symphony of Beethoven. Pa pa pa pam, pa pa pa pam, but he goes up there. Pam pam pam pam, pam pam pam pam, in the left hand. And he specifically even puts a sforzando on every single of these bass notes. So I believe it was intentional.

Jeff Spurgeon: That is Daniil Trifonov talking about one of the appearances of a Beethoven reference in this set of variations, which were in fact written for, uh, as a tribute to Beethoven, and as you said, John, to help raise some money to, to put a statue of Beethoven up in Bonn. And that's the first half of the program.

Now, at intermission, we will share with you a little something about, uh, one of the pianos, the piano makers and pianos that had some influence in Beethoven's life and career, and on the sonata that he'll play in the second half, the Broadwood piano.

John Schaefer: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, uh, without getting too lost in the weeds of the history of the development of the piano, you know, the harpsichord was an instrument with a restricted dynamic range.

Our word, piano, is actually short for pianoforte, soft/loud, and there is a kind of in between instrument called the fortepiano, the loud/soft, and, and Beethoven would have begun his career with fortepianos, and it was the beginning of the pianoforte, the modern piano with Broadwood and what came after, that really sort of enabled the grand expressive nature of some of Beethoven's later piano works.

Jeff Spurgeon: Yeah, well, Beethoven was ahead of the world in a lot of what he wrote. He pushed music forward and that was true as well with the keyboard music that he wrote. And yes, as technology helped pianos to become physically more powerful, they were able to take the heft of composers such as Beethoven or somebody like Franz Liszt who wrecked a piano or two in his time.

John Schaefer: And concert halls had to adjust as well. So, you know, everything it was sort of a, um, a closed system that fed back upon itself. The instruments got louder to meet the demands of composers like Beethoven. The halls got bigger to encompass the sound of those larger instruments and orchestras, etc. It's interesting you mention technology. It's been said that 19th century technology's greatest achievements, the steam engine and the grand piano.

Jeff Spurgeon: I believe it. And on stage to play, not the steam engine, but the grand piano, is Daniil Trifonov.


Jeff Spurgeon:
From Carnegie Hall live a performance by pianist Daniil Trifonov, of one of the suites of Jean-Philippe Rameau. The ovation continues for Daniil Trifonov. Backstage, I'm Jeff Spurgeon, alongside John Schaefer.

John Schaefer: And we're going to hear next music by Mozart, the Piano Sonata in F major, number 332 in the Köchel Catalog of Mozart's performances.


Jeff Spurgeon: From Carnegie Hall Live, pianist Daniil Trifonov, and a thundering applause from this sold-out Carnegie Hall audience for the performance of Mozart's Piano Sonata in F, K. 332. Backstage, Jeff Spurgeon and John Schaefer.

John Schaefer: And up next, Mendelssohn's Variations Sérieuses, the Serious Variations. Once again, Daniil Trifonov.


John Schaefer: Daniil Trifonov, live on stage at Carnegie Hall, performing the Variations sérieuses, the Serious Variations, by Mendelssohn. A theme and 17 variations hurtling past us in about 13 minutes.

Jeff Spurgeon: It is an action-packed piece, compositionally dense, as Trifonov told us. And the cheers on stage, as you hear.

John Schaefer: Daniil Trifonov, not only bowing towards the audience in the hall, but towards the audience surrounding him on stage as well. As we mentioned earlier in the broadcast, about 120 people seated on stage in addition to the, uh, the sold out hall here.

Jeff Spurgeon: Big demand for Trifonov. This is his fifth or sixth solo recital at Carnegie Hall, and, uh, well, he's just an absolute sensation around the world. So this has been a hot ticket for a long time, and that's part of the reason why we're seeing the extra audience members on stage tonight.

John Schaefer: Just over an hour of music, he's now good and warmed up and ready to take on Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, the physical and emotional challenges of that piece that will comprise the second half of what is a very ambitious program. Lots of light and clarity, light and clarity in the touch that he used throughout that first half.

Jeff Spurgeon: It was surprising when he would lean into the sound because, of course, his reputation has been made in the great Romantic works, the big, heavy pieces for the piano. And so much of his touch, particularly in the first portions of the Rameau Suite, very quiet, very quiet. And then occasionally he'd, you know, he'd open this baby up just a little bit for a moment or two. And the power produced is so amazing. It just, it's just enormous and it comes from seemingly nowhere.

John Schaefer: And the Mozart F Major Sonata, again, uh, this almost delicate touch, uh, sort of reflecting the sound that Mozart might have expected from the pianos of his day, and not from the behemoth that is on center stage here at Carnegie Hall.

Jeff Spurgeon: It's an interesting conundrum for artists to recreate, uh, a supposed original sound because technology drives everything forward, and the piano is certainly a, an incredible example of that, and we'll discuss that a bit more as this concert broadcast proceeds.

This is Classical New York, 105.9 FM in HD; WQXR Newark; and 90.3 FM, WQXW, Ossining.

Intermission here at Carnegie Hall, this broadcast concert of a recital pianist Daniil Trifonov. Backstage, I'm Jeff Spurgeon, alongside John Schaefer. And, uh, John, as you said, in a few minutes, the, uh, second half of the concert, a single work, uh, four movements, but a single work, Beethoven's great Opus 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata, and Hammerklavier, just a German word to replace the, well, or to act in the same manner as the Italian word, pianoforte.

John Schaefer: Right, and, and so this is one of the big pieces in the piano repertoire. It took Beethoven over a year to write. It's full of these abrupt changes of mood and huge dynamic contrasts, really taking advantage of new developments in, as you were saying, Jeff, the technology of modern pianos, which were just beginning to develop at that point. Um, and so Beethoven is both anticipating and responding to the latest developments in piano technology in this piece.

Jeff Spurgeon: Right on the edge, uh, as Beethoven was in, in so many musical ways, pushing things forward. And when we wanted to find out more about Beethoven's pianos and the Hammerklavier Sonata, we went straight to the Department of Musical Instruments at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Jayson Dobney: We have some really remarkable pianos. We have the oldest piano in the world. The instrument itself was invented in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori. We have the earliest of his surviving pieces, which was made in 1720 in Florence. My name is Jayson Dobney, I'm the curator in charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum.

We are lucky to have one by Thomas Broadwood from 1827, the year of Beethoven's death. So it's about a decade after the Broadwood that Beethoven owned. I think most people today, when they hear the word piano, have a very specific idea in their mind's ear of what a piano sounds like. This is not at all the world that Beethoven inhabited 200 years ago.

The piano was in great, great flux. Things were changing all of the time. And pianos were very different from region to region, from maker to maker, and frankly, even between instruments of the same maker, they were much more individual works of craft and art.

At the time Beethoven was alive, especially his later life, there were really two major schools of piano making. There was the Viennese school, and then there was the London or the English school of piano making, and these were very different approaches to the way that the pianos were made, the way they played, the way they sounded. The Viennese school was largely lighter touch. It was faster to play. It was clear, clean. And that was a certain style that worked for Mozart, Haydn, the composers in Vienna. By the time Beethoven came along, that style of piano had grown, but it was still the same mechanisms. The English school, makers like Broadwood, was known to be louder. It was known to be heavier. In general, everything, the concert halls were growing. Music was no longer just for the rich person's sort of parlor. It was now spectacle, it was now bigger and bigger halls, you needed louder and louder orchestras, louder and louder pianos, and this is really what's driving manufacturers to sort of compete for this market, to be THE great piano.

The, the myth sort of goes that piano maker, Thomas Broadwood, visited Beethoven in Vienna in 1817, and then he subsequently sent, uh, a big English piano, and that, ah, this must have been the instrument that Beethoven used to write the Hammerklavier. The truth, of course, is a little bit more complicated.

So Thomas Broadwood visited Beethoven in Vienna in 1817 in the summer, and he was sort of really dismayed that this great composer didn't have a great instrument. So he went back and he engaged with many of the greatest pianists in London, and they sort of selected the great Broadwood, from their opinion, to send to Beethoven. There was a plaque on it that memorialized this. So the, the instrument shipped over and then he got it. Beethoven probably had it for several months before the piece was finished but it certainly wasn't the primary driver of why he was writing the Hammerklavier.  It's likely he'd written maybe as many as three of the movements using a Viennese six octave piano because of the range in which you play it. Then he gets the Broadwood and he's playing a little bit lower and that's how we know the last movement was probably written for the Broadwood.

The British English pianos would have been heavier. They would have been louder. And by that point in Beethoven's life, he was suffering from significant hearing loss. And so presumably this bigger, stronger, most modern piano really allowed him to hear more of what he was doing. As we think about, you know, what was Beethoven wanting out of his pianos, it seems like a true and faithful sort of performance of it. It might be to play the first three on a Viennese piano and the last movement on an English piano in order to sort of match the way that he was envisioning as he wrote it. It was never performed that way, but you're getting the best of both worlds from Beethoven.

Jeff Spurgeon: A Tale of Two Pianos, Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata on deck in this concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall Live. Oh, by the way, the piano you just heard there at the end, that was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the 1827 Broadwood piano that the Met holds and once in a while brings out to play.

The, the, uh, it's, it's wonderful to hear a solo piano recital and to have a chance to hear these old piano sounds as well. (Yeah.) And think about the ways that this sound has developed and what we expect to hear when we think of a piano in a concert setting. Um, oh, and by the way, the, I should say too, that the piano you're hearing tonight is one of the two house Steinways here at Carnegie Hall. Uh, and uh, so Trifonov picked the New York Steinway that's here, so that's what he has on stage tonight.

John Schaefer: And, you know, we call it a grand piano for a reason. You know, these are large instruments, the strings are under enormous tension, there's a lot of metal holding everything together, and that enables the modern pianist to produce enough sound to fill the big stage.

Jeff Spurgeon: Yeah. To get that iron harp that can hold all that tension. Uh, the wooden, the, uh, wooden frames just couldn't take the tension. And that's one of the ways, if you want to talk about varying definitions between fortepiano and pianoforte, uh, wood frame is very often a, a fortepiano. And then we get into the modern instrument once they started using more metal to manufacture the instrument.

John Schaefer: But, uh, if you ever get a chance to go to the Met Museum and to check out their instrument collection, which is superb on so many levels, to actually see these instruments and to, to see the, the craftsmanship that goes into them, it's really, really, um, it's just very inspiring actually.

Jeff Spurgeon: It's great art. It's great art and craft together and it's another of the reasons that the piano is such an amazing instrument.

John Schaefer: Well, it gets a real workout in the second half in the Hammerklavier Sonata, which is, it's many things to many people. The slow movement, the German critic Paul Becker called it, and I'm going to read this for you, “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” So enjoy!

Jeff Spurgeon: Yeah, I wouldn't quite call that selling the work, but it is a reasonable description of this, of this huge movement. And Trifonov told us that that is, that's where the great challenge of this piece lies, in communicating all of that emotion and finding all of that richness in that, in that long piece. It's a long middle movement.

John Schaefer: And at the same time surmounting these formidable technical challenges that Beethoven sets for the pianist. And I should also say that that was one person's description of the slow movement. There are many people for whom that slow movement is almost transcendent. So, it depends on the performer and very much on the listener as well.

Jeff Spurgeon: Exactly, and Beethoven offers that experience, that transcendent experience in his late string quartet works and in some other places too, so it might be a flavor that you'll be familiar with but maybe haven't experienced on the piano, possibly before the performance you'll hear tonight by Daniil Trifonov.

This broadcast from Carnegie Hall Live continues in a few minutes. This Daniil Trifonov recital is the fourth in our current season, but you can also join us January 23rd at 8 p. m. Our next broadcast will be a concert featuring The Philadelphia Orchestra with the Marcus Roberts Trio, music of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill and George Gershwin.

John Schaefer: Right. Marcus Roberts, terrific jazz pianist, who moves pretty easily into the classical music world with his trio, and with Stravinsky, Weill, and Gershwin, you have three composers who had an acknowledged debt to American jazz. So, a program that makes sense on January 23rd. Before we hear the rest of tonight's concert with Daniil Trifonov, let's hear a little something from that Philadelphia Orchestra.

And this actually uh, you'll remember this, Jeff. This was last season's opening night concert. Yes. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting La valse by Maurice Ravel.


John Schaefer: A little bit of La valse by Maurice Ravel, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Jeff, this is from last season's opening concert. We'll be back here in January with The Philadelphia Orchestra. And now, coming on stage at Carnegie Hall, this sold-out audience waiting for Beethoven, and it's coming to you. Daniil Trifonov and the Opus 106, the Hammerklavier, from Carnegie Hall Live.


Jeff Spurgeon: From Carnegie Hall Live, pianist Daniil Trifonov, and a performance of Beethoven's Opus 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. A sold-out house at Carnegie Hall and 120 people watching this performance from behind and beside Daniil Trifonov on the stage at Carnegie Hall. He's back out now receiving bouquets from audience members. An enormous ovation for Daniil Trifonov.

John Schaefer: And why not? Fireworks aplenty towards the end of that performance of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, officially the Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major. And Daniil Trifonov striding back out to stage, bowing to the audience.


Jeff Spurgeon: An encore from Daniil Trifonov and his Carnegie Hall recital, an American song by Johnny Green, Art Tatum's version of I Cover the Waterfront. Wow. Rameau, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Art Tatum and Johnny Green.

John Schaefer: Yeah, nicely done. And all from memory. Not a, not a single page turn to be heard in this broadcast.

Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall, back out on stage, through the audience members who are on stage with him and the piano, and another bow. And back to the instrument.


Jeff Spurgeon: The second encore from Daniil Trifonov in this Carnegie Hall Live broadcast. Scriabin.

John Schaefer: Yeah, that is lovely.

Jeff Spurgeon: A beautiful third movement from the Sonata No. 3, Piano Sonata No. 3 of Scriabin.

John Schaefer: Interesting pair of encores. The American Jazz Standard in the florid Art Tatum arrangement, and then a composer we associate with very florid music, Alexander Scriabin. Played in this beautiful song-like manner.

Jeff Spurgeon: Oh, just gorgeous.

John Schaefer: To the appreciation of a full house here at Carnegie Hall.

Jeff Spurgeon: Including 120 people on stage. And, uh, they're all on their feet. And out for another curtain call. Comes Daniil Trifonov. And, again.


John Schaefer: Once again, Daniil Trifonov, live, on stage at Carnegie Hall, and after a hugely ambitious main body of his program, another encore performance. Well received by the audience here at Carnegie Hall, both on the stage, surrounding the piano, and in the main body of the hall itself.

And back out on stage, bowing in three directions, as he has to all evening long, with the 120 or so audience members who have joined him on stage, and now it does finally look like we are done.

And as soon as I said that, he turned around and headed back out on stage. We may yet have more music to be played by Daniil Trifonov, who seems to be indefatigable. Actually, he went out, bowed, and is now heading back our way here off stage. And yes, that indeed will wrap things up for this, uh remarkable and memorable concert performance by Daniil Trifonov from Carnegie Hall Live.

Jeff Spurgeon: Our thanks to Clive Gillinson and the staff of Carnegie Hall. WQXR's team of engineers includes Edward Haber, George Wellington, Duke Marcos, and Bill Siegmund.

John Schaefer Our production team, Lauren Purcell-Joyner, Laura Boyman, and Eileen Delahunty. I'm John Schaefer.

Jeff Spurgeon: And I'm Jeff Spurgeon. Carnegie Hall Live is a co-production of Carnegie Hall and WQXR in New York.

Classical New York is 105. 9 FM at HD; WQXR Newark; and 90. 3 FM, WQXW, Ossining. We'll send you back now to the WQXR studio, where Miyan Levinson brings you music.