CAMBRIDGE—Daniil Trifonov's Celebrity Series debut at Longy on Friday came accompanied by impressive credentials: notable appearances, a clutch of competition successes—including first prize at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. But more interesting than his resumé was how the 21-year-old Russian pianist revamped his program (at the last minute, necessitating a program insert) to emphasize his lineage. Pianists like cultivating genealogies of teachers and collaborators; Trifonov's recital was, partially, a splendid assertion of musical ancestry.
One unspoken progenitor: Vasily Safonov, the legendary Moscow professor who taught two of the program's pianist-composers, Alexander Scriabin and Nikolay Medtner, as well as the Gnesin sisters, founders of their own conservatory (of which Trifonov is a graduate). In Scriabin's opulent, oracular Piano Sonata No. 3 and three of Medtner's intricate “Fairy Tales,” Trifonov showed quintessential traits of the Russian Romantic style that Safonov pollinated: emphasizing the music's inner melodic spine while coupling interpretive leeway to harmonic fluctuation, surprising shifts suddenly expansive and hushed, like a change in the wind.
Trifonov's touch, at its best, was pearly and clear; Medtner's E-flat major “Fairy Tale” (Op. 26, No. 1) and “Mouvement” from Book 1 of Claude Debussy's “Images” had the cut-glass effervescence that Horowitz and Rachmaninoff often summoned forth. Extremes of volume were more idiosyncratic. Trifonov's loud passages, for all their terrific impact, sometimes hammered power into the piano rather than drawing it out. Soft passages often skated over the top of the keys (as in the rest of the Debussy), but Trifonov usually pulled it off with scrupulous evenness and a balm of pedal.
And Trifonov's virtuosity was something to behold — as was his connoisseurship. The scheduled Liszt B-minor Sonata (a standard warhorse) was replaced with a cult classic, Guido Agosti's jaw-dropping transcriptions from Stravinsky's “Firebird”; Trifonov's performance was all youthful fire, in thrall to the adrenalin of high-wire pianism. By contrast, Frédéric Chopin's opus 25 Études were aristocratic; even at his most torrential — the one-two punch of the A minor “Winter Wind” and the C minor “Ocean” had elemental fury — Trifonov expressed his authority more through bursts of refinement.
Trifonov's encores flanked a zippy romp through Chopin's Op. 18 “Grand valse brillante” with more transcriptions, claiming forbears two at a time: Liszt's version of Schumann's “Widmung,” effortlessly grand, and Rachmaninoff's light, lush, arrangement of the “Gavotte” from Bach's E major Violin Partita.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri