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At long last: Daniil Trifonov in recital at Symphony Hall

The Russian pianist delivered a riveting performance presented by the Celebrity Series.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov performs at Symphony Hall.Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov made his Symphony Hall debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Giancarlo Guerrero and the BSO in November 2012. The Celebrity Series has since presented him in recital at Longy School of Music and Jordan Hall, but his Symphony Hall recital debut was postponed in March 2020 (general COVID-19), again in November 2021 (elbow injury), and yet again in February 2022 (personal COVID). It finally came off Wednesday, in a program entirely different from the ones previously scheduled. The first half offered Trifonov’s typical dose of the unusual and the unexpected: the Suite in A minor from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Nouvelle suite de pièces de clavecin,” Mozart’s Sonata No. 12, and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Variations sérieuses.” After intermission came one of the giants of the piano repertoire, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29, the “Hammerklavier.”

I had heard Trifonov twice before, both in piano concertos with the BSO and Andris Nelsons. At Tanglewood in 2017, he delivered Mozart’s No. 21 with the limpid purity of a Dinu Lipatti. At Symphony Hall in 2019, he deconstructed the Rachmaninoff Third. On Wednesday he showed off a Romantic temperament to go with intelligence, imagination, tone, and a fabulous technique. It made for a riveting evening, if not always what the composers might have had in mind.


Rameau’s Suite was first published in 1726/27, around the time Bach was publishing his keyboard partitas. The opening Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande are followed by a trio of character pieces and then a Gavotte and six Doubles, or variations. Trifonov didn’t dance to start. His Allemande was slow and melancholy, his Courante considered, his Sarabande forthright and stately. A playful “Les Trois Mains” preceded a chaste “Fanfarinette” and then a jubilant, chiming “La Triomphante.” The Gavotte was somber and elegant; the Doubles pranced before racing to a tumultuous gallop.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov performs at Symphony Hall. Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston

Mozart wrote Sonata No. 12 sometime between 1779 and 1783, perhaps during the turbulent period when he courted and married Constanze Weber. The outer movements are in F and the central Adagio is in B-flat, but the piece keeps slipping into minor keys. Trifonov’s outer movements were ferocious but not monochromatic. He had a sense of the Allegro’s cheeky march, its turbulent minor-key transition, the laughter that breaks out in the C-major second subject. The concluding Allegro assai was a whirlwind of controlled fury; even the bittersweet C-minor flurry whipped by. The Adagio, on the other hand, dragged. At some six minutes, it wasn’t extraordinarily slow, but Mozart’s artlessness evaporated.


Composed in 1841, “Variations sérieuses” is the piece that Mendelssohn contributed to a piano anthology meant to raise funds for a large bronze Beethoven statue in Bonn. The Theme and 17 Variations are serious indeed: Mendelssohn goes beyond mere brilliance as he explores tempo, rhythm, meter, harmony, articulation, and texture. Trifonov did some exploring of his own. His Theme was more of an Adagio than the marked Andante sostenuto. The fireworks started with Variation 2; No. 5 shimmered, No. 7 pounced, No. 8 went like clockwork. Mendelssohn brings us up short with the Moderato No. 10, but Trifonov continued on with the Allegro vivace of No. 8 and No. 9. After that came Schumann-like moonlight in No. 11, a powerful left hand shaping No. 12, and butterflies in No. 13. But No. 14, marked Adagio and the only Variation in a major key, was funereal, and No. 15 offered suspense rather than the indicated agitation. The concluding pyrotechnics were at least appropriate.


Hungarian pianist András Schiff describes the “Hammerklavier” as “a work that everyone respects and reveres but few people really love.” Beethoven didn’t make the piece easy to love. It’s the longest of his piano sonatas, the thorniest to play and also to understand. A vehement Allegro is followed by a fleeting parodic Scherzo, a wrenching minor-key Adagio sostenuto, and a dizzyingly complex closing Allegro risoluto fugue. Along the way Beethoven throws in an allusion to his “Eroica,” a presto csárdás, the odd temper tantrum, and a chorale in the middle of the fugue. Just when the fugue seems to end, it starts up again.

Contemporary interpretations of the “Hammerklavier” tend toward the massive, the magisterial, and the mystic. Running about 45 minutes, Trifonov’s interpretation didn’t deviate too far from that. His Allegro steered a middle path between Beethoven’s speedy metronome mark and a civilized approach; it was violent and tender by turns, with a fughetta that could have been wilder. The dark-humored Scherzo had no bite, and the Adagio, which Beethoven marked “Appassionato,” was, for all its organic beauty, more of a Largo reverie. He did explode into the fugue, which built to a frenzy, with a rippling G-flat second theme and a nice sense of misdirection toward that false conclusion.

And he still had the energy for two encores. Art Tatum’s “I Cover the Waterfront” was more Broadway than jazz. The simplicity of the “Epílogo” from Federico Mompou’s “Variations on a Theme by Chopin” brought the evening to a reflective close.



Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At Symphony Hall, Nov. 15

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at