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 Recording of the Week  Daniil Trifonov performs Liszt's complete Concert Etudes

‘You aren’t seriously suggesting listening to all of these in one go, are you? The problem I have with Liszt is that the ratio of notes to actual music always seems a bit…off’. The singing colleague who regularly chauffeurs me to and from rehearsals is usually quite happy to leave me in charge of our drive-time playlist, but he blanched visibly when I cheerfully unpacked Daniil Trifonov’s 2-CD set of Liszt Etudes on a long commute the other evening.

Daniil Trifonov
Daniil Trifonov

The process of talking him round handily focused my mind on what I love about this new recording of some of the most technically formidable music in the piano repertoire: I spent the next ten minutes of motorway rhapsodising about the 25 year old Russian pianist’s gift for clarity and line, and above all (insert cliche klaxon here) his capacity for Letting The Music Breathe.

In the case of Trifonov (who recently won the Young Artist of the Year Category at this year’s Gramophone Awards) that’s more than a hoary old platitude: a committed yogi and meditation enthusiast, the practice of ‘mindful’ breathing techniques is as central to his musicianship as the practice of cross-rhythms, octaves, passage-work and any of the other pianistic challenges which Liszt throws his way. And it shows: transcendence really is his watchword throughout this two-hour odyssey, and there are several absolutely magical moments where (to borrow a phrase from Liszt’s son-in-law’s Parsifal) time becomes space.

As I said to my friend somewhere near Junction 13 of the M4, Trifonov’s approach is an ideal palate-cleanser for anyone who’s struggled with the density and overt virtuosity of this music: to expand on my point about the clarity of his playing, it’s worth mentioning that I initially sat down to audition this disc with a score to hand, as I often do when listening to repertoire which has A Lot Going On. Several pages in (and once I’d stopped disrupting the office by intermittently exclaiming ‘Look at this bit here! How is that even possible?!…’ etc), I realised I didn’t actually need it: even in the many passages where the printed page is almost entirely black, you hear every detail, every unexpected accent, every beautifully-sculpted melodic line. (To quote a colleague whose pianistic skills far exceed my own skin-of-the-teeth Grade 8 in the distant past, ‘playing the melodies in these things is one thing, but keeping the line going when you’re having to scamper off to the other end of the keyboard between every other note is something else’).

And what of that ‘overt virtuosity’, another sticking-point for many Liszt agnostics who find the lengthy passages of technical display a bit self-congratulatory and, well, wearing? Not on Trifonov’s watch. What’s striking about this collection is the tangible absence of egoism in the playing (it’s telling that in the booklet-notes he describes the etudes as ‘existential meditations’ rather than studies). Liszt himself may have had a reputation as the father of pianistic showmanship, but here the big bravura moments (such as Mazeppa, and Feux Follets, which here sounds as if it’s being extemporised on the spot) the focus is squarely on the breathtaking complexity of the music itself rather than the skill and mechanics involved in bringing it to life, and there are moments which genuinely seem to tap into that much-ballyhooed idea of ‘the Romantic Sublime’. And the light and shade of the more lyrical studies (the three operatic etudes of S144, or the ‘easier’ Transcendental Etudes Paysage and Ricordanza) also come off beautifully – these sections never come across as mere ‘breathing space’, because Trifonov assiduously maintains that same sense of light and shade even in stormiest waters which surround them.

In this instance, then, ‘Transcendental’ is no glib marketing strapline – it’s simply an accurate description of the quality of Trifonov’s playing. To hark back to my sceptical friend’s misgivings about these pieces, listen to Trifonov and you’ll never want to echo Emperor Joseph’s apocryphal comment to Mozart and accuse Liszt of writing ‘too many notes’!

Transcendental: Daniil Trifonov plays Franz Liszt

Daniil Trifonov (piano)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC