02/07/2013 02:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Daniil Trifonov's Carnegie Hall Debut Recital

On February 5, twenty-one year old Daniil Trifonov had two monumental milestones in one day -- his Carnegie hall recital debut, and major classical label Deutsche Grammophon recording it live to release as an album later this year. If I were that lucky musician, I would be as nervous as hell. Perhaps he was, too.

The pianist almost shot out of the stage door and walked so quickly towards the piano that his hair was lifted by the breeze he created. Sitting down, he immediately started the Scriabin Piano Sonata No.2. His long fingers spun out music like tendrils, perfect to the minutest details. The atmosphere he evoked was volatile and smoky, yet it was a damp smokiness that failed to flare up -- he did not have the deep booming sound needed to contrast with the delicate nuances. He contorted his slim body but could not get a real satisfying resonance from the piano. The second (and last) movement was thrillingly fast; a whirlwind of notes that were bitingly clear despite the dizzying tempo. However, the whole movement came and went like a fugitive vision -- as in the first movement, there was no impact, no real climax.

The Liszt B-minor Sonata proved the Russian pianist's impeccable virtuosity but here again, the lack of a satisfyingly deep and full sound weakened the overall impression. Trifonov's music flows like masses of ivy -- while each and every leaf and vine is exquisitely formed, in a large-scale and philosophical work like the Liszt Sonata, I would have much preferred a strong tree trunk than a mass of perfectly formulated tendrils. Here there was no struggle between good and evil, no abyss, no torment, no heavenly revelation. He played exquisitely. But exquisiteness is not what I look for in this Faustian work. While there were several very good moments (the scherzo fugue had a furtiveness to it that was very effective) the climaxes were rather tepid.

As if to offset the heavy fare of the first half, Trifonov played Chopin's 24 Preludes for the second half. This was a completely different story. Here, he was at home, holding the audience enthralled with his delicacy and refinement. The first time I had heard this pianist live was in the summer of 2011, at the final round of the Tchaikovsky Competition, where he played Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1. Although we are used to hearing much more brawny concertos in the final rounds of competitions, everyone, myself included, was in ecstasy over Trifonov's Chopin and it seemed impossible to award him anything but the first prize. Since then I have always thought of him as a Chopin performer, and I was not disappointed. His preludes were impossibly light and airy. No.5 sounded like the wind scattering leaves across a courtyard, while No.8 was an impassioned cry -- the first genuine show of emotion of the evening. There was nothing lacking here -- in No. 15 (Raindrop) he had the depth and brightness that were lacking in the first half of the concert. All the gravity and pathos that he could not conjure up in thirty minutes of Liszt, he had in this one little prelude. On the whole, the Chopin left nothing to be desired, and satisfied in every aspect -- he even had the rich full sonority that had been lacking earlier in the evening.

The audience greeted him with frenzied applause -- indeed, there had been a standing ovation even after the Liszt Sonata. Of course, I see what the crowd was so wild about. His boyish appearance, his lanky body and the straight hair falling into his face have poetic appeal; it's not too hard to imagine that Chopin might have looked like this when he was young. His devotion to the music is palpable. Even the way he contorts himself into all sorts of strange shapes on the piano stool, often crouching over the keys, looks as if he is fervently spinning out elaborate music. Plus, he has accomplished the unprecedented -- in the space of a few months, he won prizes at three of the most notoriously difficult piano competitions in the world - third prize in the XVI International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, first prize at the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel-Aviv, and then he carved out time between his prizewinner's concert tour to compete at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. There, he won just about every prize possible, including the first prize, gold medal, grand prix and audience award.

At 21, he still seems very young and impressible. At the moment he is in good hands; studying with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Babayan's influence permeates Trifonov's music; his touch can be recognized in the intricate ways the pianist shapes each phrase and his obsessive attention to detail. Interestingly, Trifonov is Babayan's first blazingly successful pupil - he has had many excellent (and prizewinning) students over the past two decades, but none ever reached the heights Trifonov did. I say interestingly, because two people cannot be more different than these two -- the teacher's music is full of strong character, sometimes even a little too much, while the pupil is clear and limpid. Happily for both, the mix of the two has made Trifonov into the pianist he now is. He still goes to Babayan for advice in between his busy concert schedule, and I'm curious about what kind of musician he will grow into when he eventually weans himself off his mentor, as is bound to happen over time.