Daniil Trifonov, piano

Symphony Hall

Due to a recent elbow injury, the recital with Daniil Trifonov originally scheduled for November 14, 2021 has been rescheduled for Friday, February 4, 2022 at 8pm at Symphony Hall. Ticket holders have been contacted by email, and all tickets for this weekend's concert will be transferred to the rescheduled date and reissued. Patrons will also have the option to donate the value of their tickets, put the value of their tickets on their account, exchange into the digital performance, or receive a refund. 

In order to keep everyone safe as we welcome you back to performances, we are asking our patrons to provide proof of vaccination and to wear a mask to our performances. Learn more at celebrityseries.org/safety.

Pianist Daniil Trifonov holds a special place in our hearts at Celebrity Series of Boston, and his upward trajectory over the past decade has been leading to this special moment: his solo recital debut at Symphony Hall. Following his sold-out premiere in our Debut Series, the young superstar returned twice to rapturous receptions at Jordan Hall, and we can’t wait to present him on our biggest stage for music.

Trifonov, now one of the world’s most in-demand recitalists-called “without question the most astounding pianist of our age” by London’s The Times—will play an elegant and sophisticated program of time-tested classical compositions in this anticipated performance.

“I was very much looking forward to my upcoming recital at Celebrity Series of Boston this Sunday, November 14. Unfortunately, though, following a recent elbow injury, I have been advised to postpone the performance to avoid exacerbating the problem, and have with great disappointment agreed to focus on my health and recovery over the coming weeks. I am pleased that we have been able to reschedule the recital in Boston for Friday, February 4, 2022 and I look forward to performing for you this winter. Many thanks for your understanding.”

Daniil Trifonov

Program and Notes

In the early years of the 20th century, Poland discovered a new composer, whom it honored as the successor to Chopin. He was Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), who revived Poland’s reputation as a musical country and who prepared the way for the new school of composers that began to flourish there in the years after the Second World War. When Szymanowski was born, the Russian Czar ruled much of Poland from Saint Petersburg.  Syzmanowski lived for years in the Russian Ukraine on his father’s estate, Tymoszówka, near Elizavetgrad, in an area that had been Polish until late in the 17th century. His parents were cultivated people who encouraged the artistic inclinations of their five children, three of whom became musicians. His father and his aunt gave him his first music lessons, and later, he was taught by another relative, Gustav Neuhaus, whose son, Heinrich, is now remembered as the teacher of Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. As the years passed, Szymanowski lived and worked in Warsaw, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, absorbed the innovations of Richard Strauss, Scriabin, Debussy, and Stravinsky, and studied the music of the Middle East, which earned him an invitation to become the director of the Conservatory of Music in Cairo.

In 1919, he settled in Warsaw, where he consolidated his interests in Impressionism and in non-European music with his new interest in the folk music of Poland, which he began to rediscover during a stay at Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. “Everyone must return to the land from which he has sprung,” Szymanowski said, and, “I have developed into a national composer, using with complete conviction the melodic treasures of the Polish people.” From then until the end of his life, he worked fruitfully in his new style.

In 1904, his fellow student Ludomir Rózycki, with whom he co-founded the “Young Poland” movement in music, recalled, “When he was working on his first piano sonata, I often found him at the piano, studying meticulously the structure of Chopin’s and Scriabin’s piano passages. He knew how to discern in their music the secrets of piano style. He saw in that music the secret of the piano style, and he had to discover it.”  

Completed in the summer of 1917, Szymanowski’s bold and technically demanding Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 36, was emblematic of his return to a concept he had applied in his earlier works, creating the sense of traditional movements in a cyclic work condensed into a single movement, making it extremely difficult in both its technical and interpretational demands. Here, although he casts the music in one continuous movement, he, nevertheless, unquestionably creates the feeling of the conventional subdivisions of an orthodox sonata.

The dynamic first section, a sonata-allegro, Presto (Leggiero e delicamente) has two themes contrasting in expression. Syzmanowski elevates the second theme to a position of equality with the first theme. The elegiac slow second section, Adagio, mesto, follows an ABA structure and allows whole-tone harmonies to take the forefront throughout. The third section, Assai vivace. Scherzando, is brief but nonetheless adventurous, especially in its meter. The one-movement sonata culminates in its final section, Fuga. Allegro moderato. Scherzando e buffo, whose ‘toccata’ theme is related to musical ideas brought forth in the earlier sections.  At the climax, the second theme of the initial section makes an appearance and is combined with the subject of the fugue.

In the music of this single movement at last the composer seems to discover his own distinctive voice, allowing powerful expressiveness, drive, and vitality to co-exist with lyrical and romantic moments. Szymanowski’s complicated harmony frequently borders on atonality, especially so in the Adagio and in the ornate, fanciful effects he creates at the end of the Allegro section, yet overall, the effect of this sonata is one of moodiness and intensity.

Szymanowski dedicated Piano Sonata No. 3, which he composed in 1917, to Alexander Siloti, a pianist and conductor, and a great admirer of his music.  It was his last major work for piano.

© Susan Halpern, 2021

In 1901, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) completed a set of three brilliant pieces to which he gave the simple, modest title, Pour le piano, “For the Piano,” as though to emphasize that he had been away from the instrument for a long time. During the entire preceding decade, he had written almost no piano music but had concentrated on his String Quartet, the orchestral Nocturnes, and the opera, Pelléas et Méllisande, works in which his highly personal style had at last been brought to maturity. In this short suite we hear that style at the piano for the first time, and after this composition he was to write a new and important piano work almost every year until 1915.

Pour le piano is music of great originality in color and texture, in harmony and rhythm, and in formal organization. The movements are headed not with Debussy’s usual, colorfully descriptive titles but with nearly neutral, impersonal designations borrowed from the Baroque suite. Debussy was heir to Baroque and Neo-Classical procedures that included development in such a way that a theme that has become a familiar object is turned, constantly presenting a new view of itself, in a new light. He deliberately avoided the charged emotional aspect of the German Romantic tradition of the late 19th century and instead sought models and emotional climate from the late 17th and 18th century. In doing so, he created works that were refined, delicate, and, at times, felt distant or aloof.

The first movement is a Prélude whose power and vitality spring from Debussy’s fresh rhythms, new scales, and the skillful contrast of running figures, smashing chords, brilliant glissandos, and finally, a cadenza. It uses the whole-tone scale. Next is a Sarabande, a newly stylized version of the solemn and stately old Spanish dance. It conforms to the rhythmic pattern of the dance and the old binary form but emphasizes new harmonies, especially parallel seventh chords. It had been composed three years earlier than the other parts of the work. The work ends with a Toccata, perpetual-motion music; it is a real virtuoso piece that never runs out of energy but is finally braked to a stop.

© Susan Halpern, 2021

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a 20th-century Russian composer who lived and worked in the West as well as in the Soviet Union. He was born in a remote Ukrainian village where his agronomist father worked as manager of a large estate; his mother gave her musically precocious child his first music lessons. He wrote his first piano piece at age five; at nine, he was playing Beethoven sonatas; and by the time he was eleven, he was already the composer of two operas and many piano pieces. Over the next five years he composed 60 short mood pieces for piano, most of them in simple three-part form, but they all contained the seeds of future developments, using unusual rhythms and uncommon tonalities. He studied at the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg and became a brilliant pianist. After the Revolution, Prokofiev came to America and then settled in Paris, where he was an influential figure until he returned to Russia in 1933.

The importance of the piano in Prokofiev’s career is now often ignored, but no other important 20th-century composer, except perhaps Bartók, wrote as much piano music as Prokofiev did. During much of his life he earned his living as a pianist, but he identified himself as a composer first. He became very upset when, early in his career, a caption of a photo he had taken of himself with Stravinsky identified the pair as “Composer Stravinsky, Pianist Prokofiev.” Between 1918, when he made his New York debut, and 1938, the year of his last visit to America, he was consistently described here as a pianist who played with savage fury and, one critic said, with “steel fingers, steel wrists, steel biceps.”

Much of his early piano music is bitterly ironic and sardonic, fiercely unlike the Russian late-Romantic style of the time. It is, as one of his friends said, “the orgiastic dance of a diabolical imagination on the grave of popular musical esthetics.” Sarcasms embodies just this style, which Prokofiev characterized as “ugly laughter, turned around so as to mock the laugher himself.” He used jarring dissonances and biting harmonies throughout.

Sarcasms, written between 1912 and 1914, consists of five pieces which are the product of Prokofiev’s most radical musical thinking up to that point. Unlike what some musicologists have suggested, Sarcasms is not really a collection of sonic shocks and musical pranks loosely grouped together. Actually, Prokofiev shows his lyrical side in these pieces, especially in the first, Tempestuoso (1912), which begins as both brittle and percussive sounding, but has a very lyrical second theme. The second piece, Allegro rubato (1913), begins in a contemplative mood and the third, Allegro precipitato (1914), begins furiously with tumultuous energy but turns lyrical in the middle. The fourth, Smanioso (“Frenzied”) (1914), has an improvisatory feel because the music seems to meander nervously at the outset, before it reaches the tense second part. The fifth, Precipitoissimo (1913), is indeed the depiction of laughter, but not the laughter of sarcasm. This piece is very subtle, having a dark and hazy cast, pervaded with gloom and anxiety.

Prokofiev gave the first public concert performance of the entire set at a concert organized by Alexander Siloti in Petrograd in December 1916.

© Susan Halpern, 2021

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who grew up in a very poor area of Hamburg, began his career as a musician at age twelve by giving piano lessons for pennies; at thirteen, he was playing in the harborside sailors’ bars. By age sixteen, however, he had progressed to playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and a piece he had composed himself at a public concert. In April 1853, just before his twentieth birthday, he set out from Hamburg on a modest concert tour, travelling mostly on foot. In Hanover, he called on the violinist Joseph Joachim, who, at 22, had just become the head of the royal court orchestra there, and for whom Brahms later composed his violin concerto. Joachim was so impressed by Brahms that he gave him a letter of introduction to Liszt in Weimar and sent him to see Schumann in Düsseldorf. Robert Schumann was then Germany’s leading composer, and his wife, Clara, was one of Europe’s greatest pianists. When they heard Brahms play, they took him into their home. A few weeks later, Schumann wrote an article he entitled “New Paths,” announcing his discovery: “A young man has appeared over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch, a musician to give ideal expression to his times. At the piano, he played sonatas that were symphonies in disguise. He bore the marks that proclaimed, ‘This is a chosen one.’”   

Some of the works Schumann heard during that historic visit were later destroyed, but it was at this period that Brahms wrote the F-minor Sonata. He had written out only its two slow movements before he arrived, but due to Schumann’s inspiration and perhaps under his guidance, Brahms quickly completed the huge work. In the next year, Clara Schumann played the second and third movements in a public concert, and the whole sonata was published.

Early critics, who were concerned about the young man’s future, foresaw the difficulty that Brahms would have in living up to Schumann’s glowing pronouncement and feared the dependency of the young composer on the older that it might create. Ten years later, when Brahms presented himself in Vienna with this sonata and several later works, the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to become his friend and influential supporter, found that “in the form and style of his music he suggests Schumann, whose spirit he can escape only with the greatest of difficulty. They have in common restraint and inner nobility. Everything is sincere and honest. Brahms is far surpassed by Schumann in richness of melodic invention, but he often matches him in strength of structure. He is already an important figure. Will his originality of invention keep up with the development of his technical skills?” [Adapted and abridged] We, of course, know the answer to this question and continue to treasure the work of Brahms.

Piano Sonata No. 3 is a large, powerful work whose youthful romanticism is balanced by the strength of Brahms’ musical logic in integrating its component parts. It has five movements rather than the conventional four, and they are organized and arranged in a way that gives the whole work nearly perfect symmetry and equilibrium. He attempts to link the movements with thematic transformations and subtle interrelationships. Brahms, like his Romantic peers, Liszt, Chopin, and Schubert, keeps the shape, rhythmic proportions, and intervals used in a theme more or less unchanged while varying the tempo and the mood. The work opens Allegro maestoso with a movement ingeniously and intricately constructed, with themes that are so extended and interrelated that they can seem to be either a single gigantic subject or a large number of small ones. Another especially typical Brahms feature he uses is to break up his themes into small parts, which he then treats separately. 

The second movement, Andante espressivo, which Brahms wrote before the first movement, is a lyrical, elegiac nocturne illustrating a fragment of romantic verse by Sternau that heads the music: “Evening is falling. The moon is shining. Two hearts are united in love and bound together in bliss.”  Next is the sonata’s central movement, a Scherzo, Allegro energico, with a witty opening and a contrasting central trio section based on a theme—like a folk song. The scherzo and trio are fairly short and of energetic rhythm that give the feeling of syncopation, an effect created by short rests. The theme is wide-ranging and presented in staccato octaves with grace note ornaments.

An additional slow movement, Andante molto, is inserted here, an Intermezzo subtitled Rückblick (“Backward Glance”). This movement, in three-part form with a coda, looks backward at themes already stated. It is based principally on a variant of the second movement’s main theme and makes musical reference to the first and third movements. Its middle section is distinguished by being made up entirely of chords and thus is harmonic in its effect, while the coda has a simple melody, presented in chords over a pedal point.  At the very end, the principal theme is briefly restated.  

In his freely treated rondo form Finale, Allegro moderato ma rubato, Brahms again uses retrospection very subtly. Since the two movements are played without a pause between them, the Intermezzo turns out to be, in a way, a huge, slow introduction to the grand and noble Schumannesque closing movement.  Rhythmic complexity is evident again in this movement as Brahms makes use of a hemiola in which a rhythmic figure of two in one part is pitted against three in another; in places in this movement a figure of three against four is also used. F.E. Kirbe suggests that there is more than a general correspondence between the thematic relationships in the second and fourth movements and, actually, cyclic form exists in which the themes are varied and transformed in a larger sense throughout the whole work. He believes this more “associates Brahms with the procedures of Liszt than is commonly believed, as also does his preoccupation with poetry.”

© Susan Halpern, 2021

Media Partner 

“…[Trifonov] has established himself, by the age of 28, as perhaps his generation’s most lavishly gifted pianist”

Arts Fuse

“One of the most awesome pianists of our time”

The New York Times

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This performance is generously sponsored by
The Rabb Family Foundations.

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