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Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov creates a sensation in his L.A. recital debut at Disney Hall

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov creates a sensation in his L.A. recital debut at Disney Hall
Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov wowed the crowd during his Los Angeles recital debut at Disney Concert Hall. (Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)

The record label Deutsche Grammophon has just put out a large box set of recordings by the winners of the International Chopin Competition, beginning with Russian pianist Lev Oborin in 1927 up to Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva in 2010. Obviously the set wasn't going to bother to find room for the 2010 third-place runner-up, another Russian pianist who was also a finalist, but not winner, in this year's Grammy contest.

This is a season when politicians tell us winning is everything. So it might seem like particularly unfortunate timing for said Russian loser to give his first recital in Los Angeles two nights before the Oscars, the start of a weekend when L.A. becomes a town notoriously obsessed with winners and losers.

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Losers take abundant comfort. Daniil Trifonov is an astonishing pianist. Many have already predicted greatness for this pianist who will turn 25 on March 5. His recordings are bestsellers, and he has been the subject of documentaries. His Walt Disney Concert Hall recital debut Friday was one of the season's most eagerly anticipated events and offered an evening of unforgettable playing. Martha Argerich, who was on the Chopin jury that passed over Trifonov, has become one of his most ardent champions.

Trifonov did, in fact, follow the Chopin competition with first place in the Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv and the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 2011, and his career immediately took off. Trifonov's 2013 Carnegie Hall recital, which was recorded (by DG!), galvanized the piano world. The New York Philharmonic built a Rachmaninoff festival around Trifonov late last year. L.A. almost feels late to the game (although he has appeared at the Hollywood Bowl and at Disney Hall with violinist Gidon Kremer).

Everywhere Trifonov goes, the story is pretty much the same with audiences and critics — he's a sensation. Friday night was no exception with the audience or this critic. But I will propose one caveat: I side with Argerich and applaud her jury's decision to pick a more polished winner in Warsaw five years ago.

Trifonov wasn't ready and shouldn't have been rushed. I also question how much good the succeeding wins did him. You only needed to hear Trifonov begin his Disney recital playing a few unadorned single notes and making each one a sonic world in itself to know that a special musician is in our midst. He would have been discovered no matter what.

Those unadorned notes came from a severe Brahms arrangement for left hand alone of the chaconne from Bach's Second Partita for solo violin. Trifonov — who has a slight build, wore a fashionably tight black suit with super-skinny tie and sports a new stubbly beard that makes him look passingly like a young Russian Leonardo DiCaprio — began by sitting very still at the keyboard. His right arm mostly fell limp in his lap. Yet at times you might have sworn you heard two hands playing.

That phantom-limb effect is not a unique trick, a left-hand literature exists for just that magical purpose. More incredible than a three-armed pianist is one with a third eye. And that was the impression Trifonov gave when looked into space and made each individual pitch an apparatus of hypnotism.

Next came Schubert's G-Major Sonata, D. 894, an exercise in sublime but sublimated lyricism that can erupt into shocking explosions. Trifonov's third eye saw here transcendence. He began and he continued for long stretches playing with the transfixed delicacy of accompanying countless angels dancing on the head of a pin. The pianist acknowledged Schubert's few stormy moods and playfulness, but for 35 timeless minutes the pin remained rooted and the angels unruffled. One could only listen in awe. Trifonov may have come dangerously close to preciousness, and after a while all that transcendent grace started to sound a little contrived. Still, Trifonov has a powerful vision that he also came amazingly close to realizing.

Barely catching his otherworldly breath, Trifonov then made a startling transition into a downright feral player for the flashy first book of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Brushed off were the angels to make room for devils as Trifonov, with his third eye plastered shut, attacked the keyboard with ferocious virtuosity.

This time he made visceral contact with the piano, crouching so close to the keys that it looked almost as if he were playing with his nose. Yet each showy variation became not only a great show of technical prowess but of keyboard character.

The big post-intermission sonata was Rachmaninoff's First. It is a work that needs a champion. The second is well known; few play the first, which rambles on, often pretentiously. But it has its moments — a few in the first movement, many in the slow movement, and none in a finale with far more notes than it needs.

Trifonov attacked the sonata with undiminished passion, the third eye now blinking open and shut, like a Wi-Fi indicator in a hotel with shoddy Internet. Rather than tame a beast by bringing order to Rachmaninoff's messy musical argument, Trifonov took all the fast-and-furious business to its excitingly illogical extreme. Mainly, though, he evoked a lost sound world that included ancient bells ringing and, especially in the slow movement, explorations into numinous sonic realms that Rachmaninoff himself seemed too nervous to follow further in his music.

Trifonov will be back soon. Later in March, he will play the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony in Santa Barbara, Palm Desert and San Diego. In December, he returns to Disney to play the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel.

Both concertos are specialties he plays constantly. But Trifonov is also a composer still finding his voice. He has said in interviews he is beginning to explore more modern music and has expressed a special interest in Schoenberg as well as living composers. Therein lies a path, only just begun, to greatness.

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