This morning I went to hear Daniil Trifonov’s piano recital at the Edinburgh Festival. Normally wild horses wouldn’t drag me to hear all twelve of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’. With very few exceptions, I’ve always found them musically rather dull, and can never imagine why anyone would feel motivated enough to learn the torrents of arpeggios, double octaves, chromatic thirds, enormous leaps and every other kind of technical challenge with which Liszt spins out his rather slow melodies. It often seems to me that when you’ve heard one such piece, you’ve heard them all. The same tricks are used in piece after piece.
Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun and an unusual treat to hear the 23-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov conquering these pieces in a performance of unbelievable stamina combined with precision and delicacy. The whole second half of the concert was devoted to the twelve Transcendental Studies, played in a single span without more than a few seconds’ break in between the pieces. Trifonov has wonderful hands and superb control, but he also has terrific energy and power, a surprising combination in so slight a figure. It was easy to imagine that Liszt himself must have looked and sounded something like that at the period of his life when he was obsessed by Paganini’s violin playing and resolved to produce something of equivalent technical bravura and theatrical effect on the piano.
I can’t say I found Liszt’s music any deeper than I did before, but my goodness, if these pieces are to be performed live, Trifonov is the man to do it. Even if I could have managed a single one of them I feel sure I would have been red in the face with effort. Trifonov, on the contrary, seemed to look paler and more determined as the concert progressed, and at the end his pallor and composure made him seem quite otherworldly.