Liszt: Transcendental Studies; Paganini Studies CD review – delicacy, dazzle and virtuosity

Daniil Trifonov
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CDs)

Daniil Trifonov has climbed to the top of the pianistic tree so effortlessly that it’s sometimes hard to remember he is still only 25 and has the time and potential to develop even more. As this collection of Liszt’s studies shows, Trifonov is already an exceptionally thoughtful interpreter, with musicianship that more than matches his technical gifts. It would be easy for such a young pianist to use these pieces to showcase his own technique. But while there is never any doubting the brilliance of Trifonov’s playing, that is only the starting point; the delicacy and transparency of his performances are often more striking than their moments of rampaging virtuosity.

The Transcendental Studies dominate this set, and take up the first of the two discs. While these 12 pieces no longer seem as daunting as they once did, and new recordings come along relatively frequently – Kirill Gerstein’s was released by Myrios a couple of months ago, for instance – they are still formidable to play. In the sleeve notes, Trifonov makes the point that they are not really studies, pieces that focus on technical or musical issues, but wider-ranging poems – “existential meditations” he calls them – that trace a spiritual journey, a pianistic hero’s life, and just happen to be phenomenally hard to play.

Watch the trailer for the Transcendental album

That tendency to introspection comes across in Trifonov’s accounts, which seem to have deepened and matured even between the performance of the set he gave in London two years ago and this recording, made last September. There’s no empty rhetoric, even in those pieces, such as the fourth study, Mazeppa, and the climactic eighth, Wilde Jagd, in which virtuosity is highlighted, while another of the great challenges, No 5, Feux Follets, becomes an entrancing exploration of keyboard texture, in which the astonishing delicacy and evenness of Trifonov’s playing almost gets taken for granted.

The major work on the second disc is the set of six studies Liszt composed in honour of Paganini that celebrate the virtuosity and showmanship the great violinist made his stock-in-trade. Even here, though, there’s wonderful subtlety and refinement alongside the brilliance in the performances; the colours Trifonov extracts from the piano in a piece such as the famous La Campanella, or the final Theme and Variations, based on Paganini’s 24th solo-violin Caprice, are bewitching. The two small sets of concert studies are included – the performance of Waldesrauschen, which prefigures so much of what Ravel and Debussy achieved later, is ravishing, the account of Gnomenreigen dazzling and immaculate. This is a exceptional collection of performances.

Watch Daniil Trifonov perform Liszt studies

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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