“Greatness in art is not something you tell yourself you have,” wrote the immortal pianist William Kapell in 1953. “It is the oasis, the greatness, the vision, or whatever you want to call it, after traveling the vast desert of lonely and parched feelings.”
Even if 26-year-old Russian virtuoso Daniil Trifonov is too humble to extol his own virtues, a myriad of musicians and critics have done so for him. “What he does with his hands is technically incredible,” said the legendary pianist Martha Argerich in 2011. “It’s also his touch -- he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.” Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, projected at the beginning of this year. “Once he settles into his maturity, he may have no equal.”
Trifonov is the artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony this season, with his first concert of the season, Masters of the Romantic: Trifonov Plays Chopin, on October 30. His trajectory as a pianist and new composer is on the fiery ascent. But critical acclaim is one thing -- musical destiny, the inner drive, is another.
Kapell penned those words at the age of 31, just months before he died in a Bay Area plane crash. Wise beyond his years and a ferocious worker, Kapell spoke of an oasis few musicians have ever reached. The razzle-dazzle and techniques of classical music can propel the biggest of careers, but the oasis is rather elusive, realized by the rarest of talents, and only when they devote everything toward the understanding of the musical art.
And perhaps this is what’s most compelling about young Trifonov: his priorities and devotions -- madness, if you will -- even his life, are directed toward the relentless pursuit of the “oasis.”
“I think there’s something hidden to the rest of the world,” says Sergei Babayan, Trifonov’s longtime mentor who taught him at the Cleveland Institute from 2009-2014. “Daniil has that oasis. I’m sure of it, because every great artist has that.”
“It’s difficult to define what the maximum ability is,” Trifonov tells me over the phone from Italy. “Sometimes it’s possible to be carried away. There is an expression in Russian language: sticks in the wheels. There are less sticks in the wheels when you focus intensely on something -- it’s easier to realize what you’re trying to achieve.”
What Trifonov has achieved is what conservatory dreams are made of: two Grammy nominations, the respect of A-list musicians, recording companies vying for his rights. Carnegie Hall has come knocking lately, and Trifonov’s own piano concerto makes its New York debut next month with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, one of Russia’s most prestigious classical music institutions.
The classical world typically offers glitz and glamour for its genius-types, but Trifonov appears unfazed by most of it. His reply, when I asked if he was worried about critical response toward his composition, was stoic.
“Actually, I haven’t thought about it at all,” he says. “The main concern for me is actually finding enough time for composition. Sometimes, it might happen that I might not write anything new for a number of months. It’s very difficult to predict. It very often comes at moments of shoots of consciousness: Something happens, which means you feel differently, and it needs to be reflected upon through music. Playing too many concerts as a performer reduces space for composition.”
This kind of intense, self-reflective discipline has propelled Trifonov’s rapid rise, but it sometimes worries his mentor.
“I do worry for a burnout,” says Babayan. “When he plays, he gives so much of himself. Sometimes I’m scared he’s burning that candle too intensely.”
Despite his concerns about whether Trifonov’s pace is sustainable, Babayan says the young pianist inspires him with his dedication and virtuosic ability to master new music.
“Daniil asked me if he could learn Chopin’s Opus 25 Etudes for the Rubinstein competition, which, at the time, was three months away. I didn’t think it was possible. I mean, who can do that ? He had them ready two weeks later!”
Zsolt Bognár, acclaimed pianist and host of the web series Living the Classical Life, was Trifonov’s downstairs neighbor when both were in Babayan’s studio at the Cleveland Institute, where he bore witness to Trifonov’s abilities and work habits.
“His ability to absorb information struck me as superhuman,” says Bognár. “But he works incessantly and is obsessed with craft, so his accomplishment is not just about inherent ability. Daniil’s capacity for focus on stage always struck me as unusual, almost frightening in his capacity to capture the essence of a thought or feeling for a very extended period, and he conveys his love of the music with a voice unashamedly his own, with a constant sense of discovery.”
As Trifonov’s reputation in Cleveland grew, the rest of the world discovered him in 2010 at the International Fryderyk Chopin competition in Warsaw, Poland, where Babayan’s then-first year student was awarded third prize. He had learned his program, for arguably the world’s most prestigious piano competition, just months earlier.
“Chopin was the first thing that drew me to Daniil,” Babayan remembers. “There’s a flexibility and elegant something with the phrase that all Chopin pianists have. It’s a very rare gift.”
Trifonov pushed himself after Warsaw, and gold medals followed at the Arthur Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions. When we met for an interview in California following his victory at the 2011 Tchaikovsky, what struck me about him then remains true today: Trifonov is one of the most genuine, humble, and dedicated young artists out there -- a man who, mid-conversation, can appear still lost in the music.
But concert life, along with Trifonov’s intensity and focus, have indeed come at a price. The life of endless hotels and airports can leave an artist emotionally drained, and certainly contributes to that “vast desert of lonely and parched feelings” Kapell wrote about.
“The pressure of stage can have certain negative aspects on the health in general, when it is being exerted too frequently. It’s quite an unnatural way of existence,” Trifonov reflects.
Fortunately, the past summer was devoted to rest, Trifonov’s first two-month break in seven years. “I slowly started coming back, and noticed that the way I heard the music was quite different,” he says. “There were certain fresh ideas I didn’t have before. I guess it was important to take time off.”
“We all want him to be more harmonious, to be happy with his life,” says Babayan, who now views his student as a colleague. The pair will perform a two-piano recital in February, as part of Trifonov’s San Francisco residency, which concludes in June with performances of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
“As long as he takes care of himself -- along with his incredible, beautiful soon-to-be wife, whom I adore -- to not burn as crazily as he does, that would be my wish for him. ‘Proud’ is not the right word for how I feel about Daniil: I am simply privileged, grateful to have this diamond, this beautiful creature who can feel music this way, in my life.”
Whether Trifonov has reached the oasis, or will ever attain the status of having no equal, is the subject of sharp debate. No artist is adored unanimously. But what increasingly cannot be denied is Trifonov inspires hope. If phenomenally talented young people are willing to give so much of themselves to their craft, to burn so fiercely, greatness in art will be the flame that keeps burning, never to be merely a thing of the past.