Daniil Trifonov, piano 

Symphony Hall

One of the greatest pianists of our time returns to Boston for his long-awaited solo recital debut at Symphony Hall and his first solo recital on any of our stages since 2015. 

Combining consummate technique with rare sensitivity and depth, Daniil Trifonov’s performances are a perpetual source of awe, and he’s one of the world’s most in-demand recitalists, orchestra soloists, and chamber music partners. He’s been called “without question the most astounding pianist of our age” by London’s Times, and he lends his staggering interpretive talent and dazzling technique to selections by Rameau, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, along with Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata.

Program Details

Unlike Bach, Scarlatti, and other contemporaries, Rameau published a mere sixty pieces of keyboard music in his lifetime. (Scarlatti composed over 550 keyboard sonatas alone.) Despite his relatively small output, Rameau influenced the work of his peers and future generations of composers and became one of France’s leading eighteenth-century composers. In addition to his keyboard music, Rameau made significant advancements in music theory and opera. His Treatise on Harmony and the monumental New System of Music Theory quickly made Rameau one of the most discussed musicians of his age. Within his own lifetime Rameau was nicknamed “Newton of Harmony,” and his ideas became foundational to the harmonic theory of Western classical music. A late bloomer, at age fifty Rameau premiered his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, igniting a storm of controversy over the music’s complexity and so-called Italianate affectations.

Rameau published his first collection of harpsichord pieces in 1706. In 1723—the same year Bach was appointed director of church music in Leipzig—Rameau moved to Paris, and by the end of the 1720s he had self-published two more collections of harpsichord works. These included the Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin, a set of two dance suites including the Suite in A minor. Five hundred and forty miles away, Bach was concurrently publishing his six keyboard partitas (BWV 825-830).

Most of the movements and variations within the A minor Suite are split into two sections, often with repeats. Only “La triomphante” has a separate form, a rondeau, which alternates the opening theme with contrasting material. Rameau begins with the expected opening dance movements: a richly contrapuntal allemande, then a courante followed by a solemn yet graceful sarabande. One biographer referred to this courante as “one of the summits of Rameau’s art.”

“Les trois mains” takes its name from the use of hand-crossing to create the impression of a third hand playing the treble line. The fifth and sixth movements, “Fanfarinette” and “La Triomphante,” are character pieces. The first takes its name from the French fanfaron (braggart); delicate melodies in the treble suggest a feminine grace while block chords in the bass contribute vivacious swagger. “La triomphante” is as exuberant as the title suggests. The suite concludes with a gavotte and six short but intense doubles (variations on the gavotte theme). The variations grow in complexity as they build to a virtuosic finale. 

©Andrew McIntyre, 2023

Scholars estimate that Mozart composed this sonata anywhere from 1779 to as late as autumn of 1783. For Mozart, these years were a time of joy and frustration both professional and personal. He successfully premiered two operas, the serious Idomeneo and the comic Singspiel or opera genre, The Abduction from the Seraglio, yet received only a small portion of the profits. While he won increasing recognition through teaching, composing, and public performances (including an impromptu keyboard duel with Muzio Clementi held before Emperor Joseph II), financial mismanagement kept him in debt. An on-again, off-again employment in the Viennese court of the Archbishop Colloredo left Mozart yearning for more respectable employment. His perceived impudence led to a final dismissal capped, in the composer’s words, “with a kick on my ass ... by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop.”

Finding himself fired yet again, Mozart briefly moved in with close family friends, the Webers. Under their roof he began courting their daughter Constanze, causing a small scandal. She moved in with Mozart the following year, putting him in the compromising position of marrying Constanze or compensating her family. The two hastily wed in August of 1782; a begrudging letter of consent from his father Leopold arrived the next day.

The sonata’s first movement is a study in contrasts. The two simple, carefree opening themes are usurped by a stormy minor-key section, the mood darkening as suddenly as a summer picnic threatened by an errant rain cloud. With abrupt forte pulses and the flattening of a few notes, Mozart turns jaunty, jocular syncopation into an aggressive tidal wave.

Mozart subverts expectations in the tuneful Adagio, introducing a major-key theme and immediately restating it in its wistful parallel minor. Save for some sforzandos the music never rises above piano, drawing its power instead from varied harmonies and subtle dynamic accents. After some exposition a trilled half note in the right hand signals a return to the opening themes, this time delivered with filigreed ornamentation.

Beginning with a toccata-like flourish, the technically demanding finale contains a wealth of contrasting ideas equal to the first movement. Florid, sometimes brash virtuoso passages erupt alongside melancholy cantabile themes until the sonata reaches an understated conclusion.

© Andrew McIntyre, 2023

When a publisher approached Mendelssohn to contribute a composition to his “Album-Beethoven,” Mendelssohn initially declined. Though the project was for a noble cause—raising funds for the erection of a large bronze statue of Ludwig van Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn, Germany—he agreed only when he learned that other prominent pianists including Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny would be contributing. He hoped to submit just a “short song” for the project, but within a few months he had produced what one Mendelssohn  scholar proclaimed “arguably the summit of Mendelssohn’s piano music.”  

The album consists of ten solo piano works by ten different composers. It opens with a transcription of the “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony by Liszt. Liszt expressed displeasure at the very concept of the album and most of its contents, writing, “If Beethoven were alive, he would give us contributors an enormous kick in the rear.” Save for Mendelssohn’s theme and variations and Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 45), the remaining works are insubstantial Romantic miniatures including impromptus, a romance sans paroles (song without words), and a nocturne by Czerny.  

Mendelssohn’s theme and variations was arguably a perfect tribute. Beethoven’s innovative approach to the genre, most notably in his Diabelli Variations, was well-regarded by his contemporaries and successors including Mendelssohn. Deeply influenced by Beethoven from a young age, as a teenager he fought with his father over the latter’s disdain for “Beethoven and all visionaries.” As an adult he continued to turn to Beethoven: in his final year he gave a performance from memory of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor for the newly-formed London Beethoven Quartet Society.  

Despite his initial lack of enthusiasm, Mendelssohn gave the variations great thought. He increased the number of variations, deleted some of the originals, re-ordered the remaining variations, and reworked those that made the cut. Plans to include direct allusions to Beethoven were scrapped in favor of an entirely new and cohesive work consisting of seventeen variations plus a coda. The variations are quite short; only the seventeenth variation and the coda take up more than a page. Following the plaintive theme in D minor, the first nine variations progress in crescendos of increasing dramatic tension. The tenth, a walking-pace fugue, provides brief respite. Only the fourteenth variation, an anthemic Adagio, is in a major key. Each of the final three variations flows into the next before the coda’s dazzling conclusion.   

© Andrew McIntyre, 2023

The death of Beethoven’s younger brother, Caspar Carl, from tuberculosis in 1815 ignited a bitter, years-long custody battle for Beethoven’s nephew Karl. Despite an eleventh-hour amendment to Caspar Carl’s will granting joint custody to his wife and brother, the pair refused to reconcile (Beethoven nicknamed his sisterin-law “Queen of the Night” after the villainess of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)). Despite these circumstances, Beethoven managed to compose in those years twenty of his thirty-three “Diabelli” variations, fragments of the Ninth Symphony, and his Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.  

Beethoven’s legal battles drained both his creative energy and his pocketbook. He wrote to his secretary Ferdinand Ries that the Hammerklavier “was written in distressing circumstances, for it is hard to compose almost entirely for the sake of earning one’s daily bread; and that is all I have been able to achieve.” Desperate for funds, he even expressed willingness to publish the work in London with entire movements omitted if it led to better sales.  

Of Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas, only the Hammerklavier contains the composer’s metronome markings. The wind-up metronome he used was invented in 1815, by which point the first twenty-seven sonatas had already been completed. The opening tempo marking indicates an imposing 138 beats per minute; the difficulty of this tempo has fueled countless debates regarding the accuracy of Beethoven’s metronome. Franz Liszt, who gave the first public performance of the Hammerklavier fifteen years after its publication, faithfully adhered to this marking and chastised anyone who played it slower (though he was known to reduce the tempo of the third movement).  

Pianist and teacher Kenneth Drake calls the Hammerklavier “a work of extremes in terms of its length, its technical difficulty, and the cerebral concentration it requires. Its allure is its dimensions, a keyboard Ninth Symphony and Grosse Fuge combined under one’s ten fingers.” It begins with a bold upward leap and confident fanfare followed by lyrical calm. This dichotomy of tension and relaxation, of confidence and reticence, of sound and prolonged silence, sets  the tone for the movement.  

The Scherzo opens with a parody of the first movement’s main theme; the motif of an ascending and descending third figures prominently, almost obsessively. A subtle turn to a minor key in the trio section echoes the opening melody of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. This brief movement delights in the unexpected: abrupt shifts in texture, dynamic, and tempo punctuate the music; wry pauses interrupt the narrative. A six-octave upward flourish brings back the opening scherzo material, which repeats before a sudden pianissimo finish.  

The lengthy third movement forms the emotional core of the Hammerklavier. It has been described as “the apotheosis of pain;” one early Beethoven biographer deemed it a “mausoleum of collective sorrow.” Beethoven makes extensive use of the una corda pedal with detailed instructions on how to use it. This pedal dampens the volume and dulls its tone, the hammer striking only one of the three associated string; here, the effect is one of constrained, ethereal sadness.  

Inchoate, unshaped musical thought struggles to coalesce in the introduction of the final movement. Fragmented material advances in fits and starts until high trills signal the beginning of a massive, three-voiced fugue. The fugue contains three distinct themes, all of which Beethoven develops using a wealth of traditional devices including augmentation (slowing down the original note values), inversion (stating the theme upside down), and stretto (introducing a second statement before the first has finished). At a grand pause halfway through the movement, Beethoven introduces the sweet, songlike third theme, first played una corda. After extensive exploration of these themes, the fugue concludes in a trilling, triumphant fanfare.  

© Andrew McIntyre, 2023

“It’s nice when a concert feels like an event: the crowded hall, the sense of anticipation. It’s also nice when it lives up to its promise. Audience members came for Daniil Trifonov, the hipster poet of the piano, who caressed the keys until they yielded music that was like a sinuous being of its own. ”

The Washington Post

“With his stupendous technique and fingers like coiled springs, he tore through the propulsive runs and fiendish hand-crossings with razor-sharp clarity, dexterity and strength. Yet there was not a trace of pounding, no blatant pedal-pushing, no cheap histrionics ”

Chicago Tribune

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