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At 20, he was the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow (2011) and the International Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition (2011) in Tel Aviv. For one who has garnered considerable praise and renown, there is neither trace of pretension nor egotism in his bearing. We met with the young Russian pianist on February 18, 2012 over coffee, just hours before his California debut. Below is the complete transcript of our conversation with Daniil Trifonov.
EH: Are you from a musical family ?
Trifonov: Almost every member of my family is a musician. My grandmother is a choir conductor, my father is a composer, my mother is a music theory teacher, and there are also musicians further down the line – great-grandmothers, etc. (laughs). Every one of them is really well-connected to music.
EH: What is the artistic and musical culture of your birthplace, Nizhny Novgorod ?
Trifonov: It is a city with a very nice atmosphere, but of course, Nizhny Novgorod is not very famous outside of Russia. It’s not a cultural center like Moscow or St. Petersbourg; in population, it is actually the third biggest city in Russia after those two. There are music conservatories, a good philharmonic orchestra and it is known for several musicians in piano schools. Denis Kozhukhin, winner of the Queen Elisabeth competition, is from there as well. One of the reasons, at the age of 8, my whole family moved to Moscow was to continue studying at the Gnessin School of Music.
At Gnessin, I studied with Tatiana Zelikman, a teacher who had students like Alexander Kobrin, Alexei Volodin, etc. I consider her one of the best Russian teachers, someone who really gives her students a great foundation. Of course, she is an amazing musician as well. When I arrived in Moscow, I had hoped to have a chance to play for her, and I ended up studying with her for eight years, from age 9 to 18.… nine years (laughs). I finished school and after that, I came to the United States.
EH: At what age did you realize that your musical abilities were perhaps a bit unusual ?
Trifonov: My teacher was very demanding. Tatiana Zelikman was a very critical teacher. Somehow, I don’t think it is good for musicians to realize a moment, “yes, finally I have reached something!”. There is always work ahead. Progress should never stop.
You know, when I was thirteen years old, I broke my left-hand while falling and I couldn’t play the piano for three weeks. It was absolute torture for me. Basically, this wasn’t a moment about realizing technique or other things, but about how important music was to me. It was so uncomfortable and so stressful to not be able to play…
For example, now I cannot afford myself more than one day of not practicing; and usually that one day is for traveling (laughs). I read on the airplane, and if I have free time, it’s not for vacation, I’m practicing or learning new repertoire.
You know, every piece is a challenge. You must have a new attitude for each piece. There is not one format, one perspective that works for all pieces. You have to search for the right one for each piece that you play. The destination for the artist is the constant search for this. It’s not even how to express, but what to express. There is a meaning and emotional atmosphere that you must discover.
EH: You are currently studying with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute. What are some of the things that he has done for your playing ?
Trifonov: I actually did not know him before. My previous teacher basically recommended him and I saw him for the first time at my first lesson. He is very different from Tatiana. Of course, they are both from the Heinrich Neuhaus line. Zelikman was a student of Theodor Gutman, who was Neuhaus’ student, and Babayan studied with Lev Naumov, who studied with Neuhaus.
In the first three months, it is always not easy when you change teachers. There is always some type of adaptation. I would say that after the first four months, I started to understand what was happening. There is always a connection and it is always to achieve something in the musical sense. Babayan is a fantastic pianist himself, with amazing virtuosity.
In the first year, I played mostly Chopin in preparation for the competition. And you know, when you dedicate so much time to the music of a single composer, it is very helpful to progress in the atmosphere of that composer. I prepared three hours of Chopin’s music. Before that, when I was still in Moscow, I was participating in the Scriabin competition. There was a lot of music as well: three sonatas, the concerto, and some miniatures. Scriabin’s music helped me to understand that the more you prepare for these works, the more you can develop and love them. You understand how differently you can interpret the score. You see more opportunities, especially in Romantic music. And I think Sergei has put a lot of attention on variety, the emotional diversity in each of the pieces.
EH: Do you have a specific process when you are preparing a piece?
Trifonov: Of course, it’s important to know what was happening to the composer during the period. You must know this. But especially when you take what you are learning so seriously – like with the Chopin works, even if you don’t have enough time, the most important is still to work with as much detail through each piece. I also think it’s important to not work on too many pieces at once.
EH: You won a prize at the Chopin competition in 2010 and won both the Rubinstein and the Tchaikovsky competitions in 2011. Was there a difference in your preparation for the latter two ?
Trifonov: Yes, there were differences. I wanted to learn a new program for the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. I don’t think it’s good when competitors play the same programs in competitions over several years. It does not affect them or the pieces they play in a good way, artistically. I believe that it’s always better to learn new repertoire for a new competition. For the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions, the only carry-over piece was the Chopin concerto. I learned the Chopin Op. 25 etudes just before the Rubinstein competition, and I spent a few months - about three months preparing the Tchaikovsky concerto. So half a year passed, and I believe I changed as a person.
EH: Yes, I spoke with Dang Thai Son in 2011 about you, and he also found a notable evolution in your playing.
Trifonov: You know Dang Thai Son ? I believe that his musicianship is excellent. In Tolstoy, there is an expression: people are like rivers. We are always flowing, always changing. I can’t say where I will be half a year from now, but I have an idea of where I am going and the ideas are mine to choose. I play differently now, and I am always thinking differently.
EH: Have you had to deal with issues of stage fright ?
Trifonov: Yes, especially before when I was playing fewer concerts, like two years ago (laughs). But it was not quite nerves. You have to be a little bit nervous before. It is not really ‘nerves’, it is feeling the responsibility and the concentration. You are preparing yourself to always give the maximum of what you have. You need to give everything into a performance. This is how I would describe it. There are a bit of nerves, but it is not out of fear, but nerves because of the excitement.
EH: Would you mind taking us through the experience of winning the Tchaikovsky compettiion last year ?
Trifonov: You know, I worked and worked, and it was a great feeling to be appreciated by the jury. Of course, I was very honored to win the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions. I lived and studied in Moscow for many years, so it was very special there. Moscow is actually still my home when I am not at school. My parents live there still. Of course, competitions of such a level give a lot of opportunities. There are collaborations with major orchestras, management in Asia, in Europe, in the US. At a competition like the Tchaikovsky, you are not playing just for the audience in the hall. Someone told me there were over 100,000 watching the finals. I don’t know how true this is. But this is a chance for you to show your approach to music and your own self to the world.
EH: There are those who believe that today’s competition pianists are lacking certain elements in their playing, that perhaps they are overly concerned with technical perfection. What are your thoughts on the aesthetics of this era ?
Trifonov: There was such a natural, spiritual meaning, such amazing poetry in the playing of pianists like Alfred Cortot and Dinu Lipatti. Musicians are always changing with the times, and every case is different. In terms of repertoire, I was playing a lot of Chopin and Scriabin. And if you play them in the competition manner like I was, it is dreadful because these composers require so much poetry. I can say that composers change musicians a lot. Whenever you play a certain composer, it changes you as a musician. For example, when I was preparing for Chopin, it brought me to a certain line of individuality. When I was working on the Tchaikovsky concerto, I developed technically and musically; it was different from anything I had worked on before. Now, there is the Schubert Sonata, the Chopin Etudes, etc. There is always development, the destination that we strive for.
EH: It is the responsibility of the performer to be faithful to the score. Is it possible for a great performer to surpass the vision of the composer ?
Trifonov: If you take Rachmaninoff’s recordings, he was always changing the interpretations of his own works. He does many things that are not written in his own score. My teacher, Sergei, told me that he’s seen Rachmaninoff’s writing in the score, how he’s even changed hands in certain passages. So, there is always freedom for the performer. You should not, however, put yourself above the piece of music.
You know, Chopin’s own markings are famous; he was always changing everything. Have you heard Scriabin’s recordings on piano rolls ? The absolute greatest things in his playing of his own works are not written in the score ! How can you write about the spirit, the atmosphere ? You can hint at it - delicatissimo or whatever, but the understanding of a musician should go beyond the markings. The composer’s editions and his markings should not actually be a prison for your musical fantasies. Of course, you need to respect them, but you need to see and understand the reasons. It is not to manipulate the score, but you need to find the emotional and spiritual meaning for the markings. There is a lot of freedom in the score.
EH: Aside from Chopin and the Russian composers, are you equally comfortable with the works of the Germanic composers ?
Trifonov: I have to say that the majority of the pieces I’ve worked on are Chopin, Schumann, and Schubert, his transcriptions, etc. Of course, through the years, I’ve also played a lot of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart; I haven’t played much Brahms yet. You know something, I grew up and studied in Russia, but I didn’t learn a single note of Rachmaninoff’s music before last year !
EH: I find that very hard to believe (laughs).
Trifonov: Yes. The first piece of his that I played was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and this was two months ago. (laughs). I love his pieces ! It is not a question of his music, I know that his pieces are very beautiful (laughs).
In the Russian school of music, there is a great love for German and French repertoire. There is actually no concentration on the Russian repertoire, and I love this diversity. I would actually love to learn more contemporary music.
EH: Who are your favorite pianists from the Golden Age of pianism ?
Trifonov: Tatiana Zelikman had an incredible collection of recordings from every era. Since my teenage years, she’s given me many recordings. Now, I also especially adore pianists like: Friedman, Hofmann, and Rachmaninoff.
EH: What are your thoughts on the pianism of Vladimir Horowitz ?
Trifonov: Incredible Romanticism. I have so many thoughts on this amazing musician. There is a kind of lightness to his approach. Technically, of course, he uses flat-fingers, which I also use as well. But also, his approach, his individual way of breathing in his phrases… There is always a line, an anticipation where you think, ‘what is happening next’ ? I would also say this about Sofronitsky, especially in Scriabin. I think his Chopin and Schumann are wonderful too.
EH: Several months ago, he performed a very similar program here in California - the Chopin Etudes and the same Schubert Sonata (D.960). What are your thoughts on the Chinese phenomenon Lang Lang ?
Trifonov: Among modern pianists, I have to say that I appreciate Radu Lupu, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Grigory Sokolov, and Sergei Babayan, my teacher. Lang Lang is an incredible virtuoso performer. I do respect him a lot as a pianist. But I am more intended for a different approach.
EH: Your programs have featured the complete Chopin Etudes. Which one is the most difficult for your hand ?
Trifonov: Well, every single one is incredibly difficult. I guess it is just a matter of the time it takes for your hands to understand what they have to do. Technically, when I was learning them, from Op. 25, it was the octaves etude (No. 10), and from Op. 10, it was No. 1, No. 2, and No. 12. They are all challenges, but once you understand how to handle them…
In Chopin, the sensitivity of the fingers and the fingertips are very important – especially in No. 2 and No. 18 (Op. 25 No. 6). But also important is the great flexibility of the wrist. It is like you don’t have any bones. The relaxation of the hands is so important. If you can play No. 1 and No. 2 and your hands don’t get tired, if you can repeat this over and over, then it means that you’ve understood how your hands should behave (laughs).
The Etudes are also a great musical question. Every etude is a poem, and it is incredible how Chopin connected these. I don’t believe these are just etudes. It is a great cycle and every piece is so individual. I learned No. 4, No. 18, and No. 8 when I was young. Every other one I learned three months before the competitions. After that, in the early autumn, I learned Op. 10.
EH: Do you have a performance routine ? And how is your musical memory ?
Trifonov: On the day of a performance, I prefer to not practice. You can practice maybe one hour or more in the morning. I like to sleep before a concert so that I feel refreshed. I now practice up to eight hours a day. Five days ago, I went up to nine hours. I would not recommend this because there is the next morning. You cannot feel normal that next day (laughs). There is a balance that you have to keep, and I think six hours, anything between five to seven, works for me.
How fast do I memorize a score ? With Rachmaninoff, because I didn’t play any of his music, it takes a bit more time. But some pieces I can memorize in a few days. For example, the Prokofieff Concerto No. 1, I’d say about one week; same for the Chopin concerto. But this is just to memorize the piece. The real work begins after this.
EH: In your opinion, what is the purpose of performance art ?
Trifonov: To influence people in some way, to have them take something to heart. We try to take their attention, to tell a story, to make them reflect and realize a certain state of emotions. I don’t want to say hypnosis. You know, it is like a pastor who encourages people. People say that the music theater is like a church of Art. It is a good expression because I believe that it influences people, it emotionally affects them. People don’t attend concerts just to listen to good playing. They go for an experience, a new experience.
EH: Apart from music, what other art forms have captured your attention ?
Trifonov: I love Tolstoy’s use of language. I’m actually reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which is amazing. I also love Oscar Wilde. With painting, when I was in Florence, I saw many original works of Botticelli and da Vinci. After seeing these, there is something missing in other works. There is an effortlessness about the expression. It is almost on the edge of coming to life. These are equally important for a musical performance, especially this effortlessness. The less effort you use, the more you can concentrate on the expression and the emotional content. When you realize a natural connection between your fingers and your mind, you can play with music.
EH: What are your thoughts on the future of the art form ?
Trifonov: It really depends on the performances and on the composers. There are many interesting modern composers. I love Carl Vine, Ligetti, Messiaen, and I actually really like jazz and Chick Corea too. I played a work of his in the San Marino competition. With respect to contemporary composers, there are many new ideas. One composer whose works have inspired me is Mario Lanza; but that is really contemporary. When you are twenty, you must learn a lot of classical repertoire. But in the future, I will learn the works of many contemporary composers.
EH: Daniil, thank you for your time today. Best of luck to you this evening.
Trifonov: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure !