The Piano Virtuoso

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At 25, Daniil Trifonov is among the most gifted pianists of his generation. Here, he explains the practice regimen behind his near perfection.

When pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was born in the dying Soviet Union and nurtured in Moscow and Cleveland before rocketing onto the global concert circuit, seems stumped by the question of where he actually lives. This is what it means to be a 25-year-old migrant virtuoso now: He flits from airport to hotel to concert hall, finding pianos wherever he goes.

“I am rooted in music,” he finally decides. An address is an inconvenience.

When Trifonov was nine, his parents, both musicians, decided that his talent was too outsized for his hometown, Nizhny Novgorod, so they moved to a small apartment at the far edge of Moscow, a two-hour ride by bus, train, and subway from the Gnessin School of Music. Trifonov used the commute to run through pieces in his head.

Five years ago, he achieved the pianist’s grand slam, winning both the Tchaikovsky and the Rubinstein competitions. That kind of sudden success can be brutal for a young artist. Recently, he has scaled back from 130 performances a year to around 110—still plenty, since almost every one takes place in a different city. He practices first thing in the morning and, if he still has the energy, after a concert, so he can begin and end his days at the piano. He scrounges time to compose when he can.

I catch him backstage at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, minutes after he’s finished playing Rachmaninoff ’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. He’s still wearing his sweat-dampened undertaker’s suit, and he brushes the sopping hair from his eyes as he shyly greets a retinue of friends, “friends,” professionals, and hangers-on, all of them brimming with congratulations and demands. There’s someone he absolutely must meet.

Trifonov is relatively relaxed, enjoying the rare luxury of spending three consecutive weeks in one city, playing three of the four Rachmaninoff concertos. These are works that don’t lend themselves to understatement, yet he has teased out undercurrents of sensitivity beneath the showy swells and breast-beating melodies.

Trifonov is a virtuoso, an athlete-poet of the piano. The job description is narrower than it was in the 19th century. Liszt played and conducted his own music, championed the work of others, popularized symphonies and operas by making piano arrangements, wrote polemics, and invented a genre (the tone poem) and a form (continuous variation). Today, a virtuoso plays old music accurately, fast, and often. It’s not a life prone to curiosity or bolts of inspiration, both of which Trifonov cultivates with care. In performance he appears totally transfixed, and his playing has the quality of an open flame: fluid and constant, yet unpredictable in its minutiae. “The most important thing,” he says, “is to be faithful to the idea of exploration and constant search.”

To achieve that incandescence, he maintains a regime of rigorously prepared spontaneity that is evident even in his speech. He begins a sentence, then pauses so long you can practically detect it going through a grammar check, before concluding with a formal flourish: “Among the techniques that I have found most effective in the process of learning new repertoire is recording myself.” The point is to stand aside from his own intensity. On video, he explains, “You can immediately detect a certain unnaturalness in some passages. If it gets into the hands, it is very difficult to fix.” Sometimes he starts practicing a piece by dropping rapidly from fortissimo to a whisper. He would never actually perform that way, but the technique helps him understand a piece’s contour and breath.

As the score becomes familiar, he sets a small mirror on the stand to monitor his responses and use them as interpretive guides: “Once you play a chord and see the reaction in the eyes, you understand more precisely the emotion it produces. Then you try to have that same energy and emotion before you play the chord, so it already has that purpose.” This kind of feedback loop may seem like a cold way of choreographing emotions, but music is like that: rhapsodic and dispassionate at the same time.

Practicing, Trifonov says, is a bit like visiting a natural-history museum. “There are butterflies behind glass, and they are beautiful but dead,” he says. “The difference between practicing and going onstage is that in concert you’re in an open field full of butterflies, and everything has to be alive.” He savors the unpredictability, the quicksilver response to a slightly different resonance, a surprise rubato from the orchestra. He thinks for a long minute, then produces another comparison: “It’s like surfing on water: You have to feel the wave. Some days the ocean is more rough, so you have to glide differently.” Surprised by the choice of metaphor, I ask him whether he has actually ever surfed. “I want to,” he says. Trifonov is performing at the Tanglewood Music Festival on August 4; bso.org.

The Best of the Rest

Virtuosos vary, from faster/louder/bigger prodigies to the player-priests who dazzle with spiritual fervor.

Leila Josefowicz, 38
Like the great virtuosos of the past, the American violinist uses her limitless technique to champion new works, including violin concertos by John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Thomas Adès.

Alisa Weilerstein, 34
Across a vast repertoire that stretches from Bach to a concerto that’s still rolling out of the printer, the cellist plays intensely, explosively, packing an epic into a single note.

Chris Thile, 35
Best known as an avant-bluegrass singer-songwriter, the mandolinist has also claimed Bach as his turf, giving tender performances of the sonatas and partitas.

Yuja Wang, 29
The Chinese-born pianist has been sweeping through the classics with fierce athleticism and poetic grace. Many pianists treat Liszt’s B-minor Sonata as a grueling endurance feat; she plays it with light, fluid clarity.

Claire Chase, 38
Flutist Chase upends notions of what her venerable instrument can do. A new-music impresario and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, she produces tones of classic beauty from the bass flute, sings and chatters as she plays, and threads natural flute sounds through electronics.

Pretty Yende, 31
The South African soprano almost literally catapulted to fame when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut by falling off a step during Rossini’s Le Comte Ory—and then standing up and dazzling the audience with her limber voice. She later said that she aspired to be as “quick, smart, and charming” as Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which is not a stretch.