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Fast-rising Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is taking the concert world by storm, winning over critics and audiences alike. He brings an impressive program highlighting his remarkable playing and mesmerizing artistry. 

"Trifonov's technical abilities were spellbinding…"  —The Telegraph (UK)
 

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    Daniil Trifonov

    Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov has made a spectacular ascent in the world of classical music since winning First Prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions in 2011 at the age of 20. “He has everything and more … tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that,” stated pianist Martha Argerich.

    The 2016-17 season brings the release of Transcendental, Trifonov’s third title as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist. In concert, the pianist—a recipient of Gramophone’s 2016 Artist of the Year award—headlines the gala finale of the Chicago Symphony’s 125th anniversary celebrations. Having scored his second Grammy Award nomination with Rachmaninoff Variations, he performed Rachmaninoff for his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic at its New Year’s Eve concerts, which aired live in cinemas throughout Europe. He debuts with the Melbourne and Sydney symphonies, returns to the Los Angeles and the Royal Liverpool philharmonics, and headlines the Munich Philharmonic’s “Rachmaninoff Cycle” tour with longtime collaborator Valery Gergiev. He also returns to the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland, and Philadelphia orchestras; performs a series of dates with the Staatskapelle Dresden at home, the Salzburg Festival, and London’s BBC Proms; and tours with the La Scala and Mahler Chamber orchestras.

    An accomplished composer, Trifonov reprised his own concerto in Kansas City. He makes recital debuts at London’s Barbican and Melbourne’s Recital Centre; appears in a series of European hotspots; and returns to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and—for the fourth consecutive year—the mainstage of New York’s Carnegie Hall. He gives duo-recitals with his former teacher, pianist Sergei Babayan, and returns to the Tanglewood, Verbier, Baden-Baden, and Salzburg festivals.

    Rachmaninoff was the focus of Trifonov’s 2015-16 season, when he played complete concerto cycles at the New York Philharmonic’s Rachmaninoff Festival and with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. He undertook residencies in Lugano and London, and headlined the prestigious Nobel Prize Concert.

    In recent seasons, Trifonov has collaborated with the Cologne, Munich, London’s Royal, Los Angeles, and New York philharmonics; the Cleveland, La Scala, London Symphony, and Philadelphia orchestras; the orchestres national de Lyon and France; and the symphonies of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington. He has also toured Asia with the Czech Philharmonic and North America with the Montreal Symphony.

    Since making solo recital debuts at Carnegie Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, Japan’s Suntory Hall, and Paris’s Salle Pleyel in 2012-13, he has given recitals in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, London, Lucerne, Munich, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.

    The 2013-14 season saw the release of Trifonov: The Carnegie Recital, the pianist’s first recording as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist; captured live at his 2013 Carnegie Hall recital debut. His discography also features a Chopin album for Decca and a recording with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra on the ensemble’s own label.

    Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1991, Trifonov began his musical training at age five. He attended Moscow’s Gnessin School of Music, before pursuing his piano studies with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has also studied composition, and continues to write for piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra. Trifonov’s website is daniiltrifonov.com. 

    "Few artists have burst onto the classical music scene in recent years with the incandescence of the pianist Daniil Trifonov" —The New York Times

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Kinderszenen, Op. 15

View Notes

During his late twenties, the young Robert Schumann had fallen in love with his even younger piano student, Clara Wieck, and while waiting for her to come of age, composed almost all the important piano works he would ever write. In March 1838, Schumann informed Clara that he had just composed “some thirty little droll things, from which I have selected a dozen or so and called them Kinderszenen. You will enjoy them—though you will have to forget that you are a virtuoso.” In another letter he told Clara, “The Kinderszenen are […] peaceful, tender, and happy, like our future.”

This cycle includes some of Schumann’s best-known melodies. “Träumerei,” for example, has been published in arrangements for virtually every instrument imaginable. “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” is a cinematic favorite, most famously used in the Oscar-nominated My Brilliant Career (1979). But the familiarity of these works should not detract attention from the skill with which they are composed. Neither should this be considered “children’s music” as such. Schumann himself said that it was not for children, only about them—“reminiscences of an adult, for adults.”

Each of the 13 pieces in Kinderszenen develops one or two simple musical ideas in a binary or ternary form. The formal structure is not complex, the surfaces almost completely artless, but the emotional substance is enriched by the works’ simplicity. The ordering of the pieces mirrors the flexibility and peculiar logic of a child’s mind. The cantabile melody of “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” is reflective without being sentimental. “A Curious Story” conveys restrained excitement through dance-like dotted rhythms and animated chordal writing, and the excitement continues in “Blind Man’s Bluff,” a playful and energetic study in rapid staccato. Many children’s games end in tears, but in the repeated melodies of “Pleading Child” they are gentle tears. Apparently the pleading child’s request was granted, as it is followed by “Happiness”: a contented piece of joyful satisfaction. The mock-pomposity of the heavy chords in “An Important Event” suggests children dressing up as royalty for a short play. This is immediately followed by the famous “Träumerei”—the gentle reverie of an afternoon nap. “At the Fireside” might depict the telling of a story to curious little listeners, before the day continues with more energetic activities and the syncopated, galloping rhythms of “Knight of the Hobbyhorse.” In “Almost Too Serious,” it is the melody that is syncopated, leading to the sudden contrasts and furtive darting images of “Frightening,” which nevertheless ends calmly. In “Child Falling Asleep,” the minor key suggests some lingering restlessness from the previous piece, but a move to major in the central section indicates a deeper repose. It ends on the subdominant, a motion away from tonic that hints at further adventures in the world of dreams. “The Poet Speaks” summarizes the Romantic connection between words, images, and music, in a profound and sagacious conclusion, complete with quasi-operatic recitative in the middle section. 

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Toccata, Op. 7

View Notes

Unlike his contemporaries Liszt and Chopin, Robert Schumann composed no etudes for the piano. Though interested in keyboard technique for its own sake, evidenced by his transcriptions of Paganini’s violin caprices as much as by his own aspirations toward virtuoso performance, Schumann much preferred to apply that technique to programmatic storytelling through the piano.

The one exception is the Toccata, Op. 7, begun in 1830 and completed in 1836. It is the only work he wrote inspired solely by technical difficulty. He believed it to be “the hardest piece ever written” when he composed it, and it is thought that practicing the opening chords precipitated the injury to his right hand that permanently derailed Schumann’s performing career.

Few composers of note in the early 19th century wrote toccatas. Schumann could easily have titled this work an etude but used the Baroque title instead. By so doing, he emphasizes the work’s total concentration on keyboard “touch” but also references the emerging “Baroque revival” of the 1830s.

In this Toccata, the opening alternating chords are much more difficult to play than they sound. Unlike Liszt’s brand of pianism, which sought maximum effect, Schumann here writes an exceptionally difficult passage with wide stretches and demanding alternations of fingerings that nevertheless give the impression of smooth facility. But, like Chopin, Schumann understood the role of voice-leading in virtuoso keyboard playing, and weaves contrapuntal melodies through the relentlessly driving sixteenth-note figures. In the development section, rapidly repeated octaves—more difficult on Schumann’s pianos than on modern instruments—are the principal departure from the opening textures. And unlike a typical virtuoso showpiece, the coda decrescendos to a gentle, almost whimsical conclusion.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Kreisleriana, Op. 16

View Notes

In 1838, Schumann revealed in a letter to Clara, “I'm overflowing with music and beautiful melodies now. Imagine, since my last letter I've finished another whole notebook of new pieces. I intend to call it Kreisleriana.” He had composed this set of eight character pieces for piano in only four days—an especially powerful burst of creativity for a composer already disposed toward concentrated periods of intense writing.

The enigmatic title is not entirely indicative of the work’s artistic goals. Schumann thought that none but Germans would understand its implications (which are a reference to the fictional musician Johannes Kreisler, from various stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann), and yet he dedicated the set to Chopin, a Pole living in France. What’s more, he indicated to Clara, “I want to dedicate it to you—yes, to you and nobody else—and then you will smile so sweetly when you discover yourself in it.” And, at the same time, there is much in this set that is autobiographical in its exploration of Schumann’s own complicated character. Still, Kreisleriana remains one of Schumann’s finest works for solo piano, and one of his most significant in any genre.

In Hoffman’s writings, Johannes Kreisler is a bumbling, antisocial composer whose musical genius consistently collides with his moody temperament, very much like Schumann himself. Throughout these eight “fantasies,” Schumann reflects this erratic character in wild contrasts; seven of the movements have a tempo markings that indicate extremes (Äußerst and Sehr—or “extremely” and “very”). And each piece alternates between impulsiveness and dreamy reflection, with the entire set united by a simple five-note motif that Clara herself had devised. In the first piece (Äußerst bewegt), agitated right-hand triplets reflect the impetuous side of Hoffmann/Schumann, and though the surface rhythm remains the same in the contrasting middle section, the spirit is much calmer. The wistful second movement (Sehr inning und nicht zu rasch) is a much more extended fantasy with two vigorous intermezzi. In the third (Sehr aufgeregt) an ominous opening statement again gives way to a lyrical interlude based on contrary-motion scale patterns. The tempo then slows almost to a standstill in the meditative fourth movement (Sehr langsam), in which the song-like middle section is only slightly more animated.

The fifth fantasy (Sehr lebhaft) opens with mercurial dotted motifs that dart around the keyboard, maintaining that elfin quality through the contrasting passages. Returning to the same tempo as the fourth movement (Sehr langsam), the sixth is decidedly more dramatic and uncertain. The set then concludes with two up-tempo movements, starting with the agitated seventh (Sehr rasch) with its Bach-like counterpoint in the intermezzo and curiously hymn-like coda. In the impertinent finale (Schnell und spielend) a theatrical intermezzo segues seamlessly into the dotted rhythms that close out the set, ending with a gradual decrescendo as the motif cheekily sneaks out of sight. 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Selections from 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87

View Notes

Composing music was, for Dmitri Shostakovich, literally a matter of life or death. Twice, in 1936 and again in 1948, he was officially denounced and publicly humiliated, and he reportedly kept an overnight travel bag ready by his bedside every night in case the KGB came to arrest him. But his music was also personal and private. Toward the end of his life he said, “Every piece of music is a form of personal expression for its creator….If a work doesn’t express the composer’s own personal point of view, his own ideas, then it doesn’t, in my opinion, even deserve to be born.”

Although out of favor with the Communist Party in the immediate post-war years, Shostakovich was still frequently sent abroad as a cultural ambassador. It was in this capacity that he visited Leipzig in June, 1950, to serve as a member of the judging panel for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. Inspired by both the theme of the event in general—he regarded Bach as “that genius, the phenomenal Master”—and the playing of the eventual winner, the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, Shostakovich decided to write his own set of piano preludes and fugues. In honor of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, it would cycle through each of the 24 major and minor keys.

He worked quickly after returning to Russia, producing a prelude and fugue every few days, and with such perfection that they required almost no corrections in the manuscript. The set was completed in early 1951, and although it was officially censured for its “antipeople” and “formalist” tendencies, both Shostakovich and Nikolayeva prepared the work for publication and performance the following year.

The set is organized by key, but does not use Bach’s pattern. Instead, Shostakovich employed the same organization as Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes, which alternate relative major and minor keys through the cycle of fifths. There are myriad quotations of Bach and allusions to Baroque style throughout, as well as self-quotations by Shostakovich, and frequent evocations of a variety of styles and genres from the preceding two hundred years of European music traditions.

With its pedal points and Baroque figurations, the lithe and delicate Prelude in A major (No. 7) is one of the most overtly Bach-like sections in the cycle. The fugue is similarly ethereal, also residing primarily in the upper half of the keyboard as it evokes cascading fountains. The frantically rippling A-minor prelude (No. 2) seems to reach its conclusion before it has even started, but the energy propels itself directly into the angular, satirical fugue that darts about seeking a stable harmonic home. The lute strums and lyrical melodies of the D-major prelude (No. 5) create a fragile, almost impressionistic vision that continues into the birdcall-like theme of the fugue. The D-minor prelude (No. 24) opens dramatically but turns inwardly poignant for the remainder. The fugue subject borrows motifs from the prelude, and grows out that same reticence that closed the prelude. As it appears to wind down peacefully, Shostakovich introduces a livelier second fugue subject that gathers momentum and propels this, the last and longest fugue in the set, toward a bold, triumphant climax in octaves. 

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Three movements from Petrouchka

View Notes

Igor Stravinsky came from a musical family, but a career in music was never a foregone conclusion. Stravinsky’s mother, Anna, was a singer and played piano fluently. His father, Fyodor, became one of the greatest Russian bass-baritones of his generation. Distinguished musical visitors were a regularity at the Stravinsky apartment in St. Petersburg, and included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Musorgsky. But Stravinsky studied law at the University of St. Petersburg. While there, he took music lessons, and befriended Rimsky-Korsakov’s son. Through this connection, he became reacquainted with Rimsky-Korsakov, who saw promise in the young law student’s musician’s early attempts at musical composition, and agreed to oversee his development.

While being mentored by Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote an orchestral scherzo titled Feyerverk (“Fireworks”) that in 1909 caught the ear of Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario. Diaghilev was impressed enough to commission some orchestrations from Stravinsky of Chopin pieces for the Ballets Russes’s season later that year. At that point, Stravinsky’s path to the great Russian ballets—Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913)—was set.

The music that eventually found its way into the score of Petrouchka actually started out as a concert work for piano and orchestra, with Stravinsky imagining the piano as a kind of mischievous puppet who taunts the orchestra with “diabolical cascades of arpeggios.” When Diaghilev visited Stravinsky in 1910 and heard a run-through of this work, he immediately recognized its dramatic possibilities, and convinced Stravinsky to turn the piece into a ballet score, which was premiered the following year in Paris.

Ten years later, Stravinsky decided to create a solo piano work for Arthur Rubinstein, not only as a tribute to his friend but as a way of enticing pianists in general to play his music. He took three excerpts from Petrouchka but, instead of merely creating piano transcriptions, Stravinsky re-composed these movements to make them more pianistic. The Three Movements from Petrouchka have become Stravinsky’s best-known virtuoso work for solo piano, renowned for their technical difficulty but teeming with the ballet score’s rhythmic vigor, engaging folk melodies, and vibrant energy.

The lively “Russian Dance” is drawn from the ballet’s opening tableau, as the magician’s three puppets—Petrouchka, the Moor, and the Ballerina—are introduced to the curious crowd at a Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg. Immediately following, at the start of the second tableau, the scene changes to the inside of “Petrouchka’s Room,” where his pained human soul and emotional suffering are revealed. At the end of the ballet, the action reverts to “The Shrovetide Fair” and its colorful crowd of revelers jostling among the sideshow acts.

NOTES BY LUKE HOWARD, © 2016

Program Subject to Change Without Notice