The true heir to Horowitz and Richter

In the new issue of Standpoint, I try to assess why the playing of Daniil Trifonov (‘a pianist for the rest of our lives’) affects me as it does.

What is it about Trifonov that sets him apart from all other pianists? He is, on first sight, the least modern of artists. He wears a dark suit, black tie, uncomfortably. On stage, he hunches over the keyboard, unaware of the audience. If he uses a score, he is quicker to turn pages than the fastest of attendants. He makes no pause between pieces, stifling applause for an hour or more.

In return, he delivers a modern benefice, the kind of concentration that has all but vanished from our tweet-shattered attention spans. The tension when Trifonov plays is breathless. And, within that grip, he finds narrative where none previously existed. He is the first pianist I have ever heard who plays a set of Chopin Études as if reciting for the first time a Tolstoy novella.

Read the full essay here.



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  • This reminds me of the story Maurice Ravel told to George Gershwin when Gershwin said he wanted to be like Ravel. He said, ‘Better you should be a first rate Gershwin than a second rate Ravel!’ Horowitz and Richter were so different, and Gilels played with a warmth and sound others did not. There was a sense of space and timing in Horowitz’s playing which nobody else achieved. He had his own sense of sound. I hope people remember the names Guiomar Novaes, Maria Tipo, Yara Bernette too. I think there is tremendous individuality in all musicians, and to proclaim one young fine artist an heir to artists of a past century doesn’t make sense to today’s audiences–many of whom do not know the names Horowitz and Richter. Believe it or not, when I ask students today if they know these names, I get blank stares. Somewhat frightening. For me, young artists need to create their own phenomena and following without references to others. Eh, my two-cents.

    • Quite right, Jeffrey. The post isn’t music criticism — it’s hagiography. I have my own notions about which pianists belong in the pantheon of gods from generations past, and of the far smaller number, pro rata, of living pianists who may qualify to join that pantheon. But I wouldn’t broadcast my opinions on this, for I know (especially if I wrote of it in a YT comment) that it would lead to warfare, most likely starting with salvos from the Lang Lang and Glenn Gould fan clubs which always seem to lead the charge. The odds of any participants having heard of Moiseiwitsch, Solomon, Friedman, Hofmann, Hess, et al., are mighty slim indeed. There is simply no way of justifying calling a particular artist ‘the greatest’ or the single heir of masters past. It’s just an opinion to be rightly reserved for discussion over the brandy, when it might be an amusing argument among true cognoscenti, quite possibly yielding insights, but it is not serious music criticism. Distinctions must be rigorous, precise. Here, NL falls into the basic trap of a variation of the fallacy of the false dichotomy — the false dilemma. It’s dismal thing, for the false dichotomy has in recent decades been a major reason for the decline in quality of public discourse.

      • I totally get NL. And to be honest, he brings attention to our craft and brings people to appreciate it using today’s technology to do so. Hat’s off to him. I do believe, however, that audiences who enjoy today’s young tigers of the keyboard should explore the wondrous world of YouTube to find otherwise unknown or rarely heard recordings of the 20th century to gain a sense of the lineage and how the traditions have wavered over the years.

    • While Trifonov is certainly very talented, Mr. Lebrecht’s enthusiasm is, in my opinion, slightly excessive. For example, I heard Kissin for the first time when he was a teenager, and his playing was just astounding – Trifonov (in his 20s) still doesn’t quite have Kissin’s tonal beauty or interpretive authority.
      Also, I am stunned by the fact that Mr. Beigel’s students haven’t heard about Horowitz or Richter ! Imagine a young physicist who isn’t familiar with Einstein or Newton …

      • Of course you are being frivolous , how can any intelligent person mention
        Horowitz or Richter in the same breath with Einstein and Newton ?

        • How can any intelligent person be so snarky and bitter ? I was simply making a point that being an artist/performer unfamiliar with the greatest practitioners of that particular art form is akin to bring a scientist unacquainted with the leaders of the relevant scientific discipline.

        • How can any intelligent person be so snarky and bitter ? I was simply making a point that being an artist/performer unfamiliar with the greatest practitioners of that particular art form is akin to being a scientist unacquainted with the leaders of the relevant scientific discipline.

          • How an unemotional observation can be viewed as snarky & bitter does
            indeed surprise besides making little sense .
            For an upcoming student of music not to be aware of Chopin or Liszt
            would be troubling ,not to be aware of entertainers such as Horowitz
            or Richter would be understandable.Am sure Mark knows why this
            is so .

    • Blank stares about whom? If you mean Horowitz, Richter or Gilels, I am in deep shock. Less so about Novaes or Tipo. Given the accessibility of old recordings on youtube, I would have expected an increase in the number of students who are savvy on pianists from previous generations.

      • Josef Lhevinne and Josef Hofmann. I wonder how many young pianists know these names. Some do, many do not. Add Jorge Bolet.

  • Lebrecht is entitled to whatever feelings he has for the pianist .
    To compare Chopins’ work to novella by Tolstoy is hilariously ridiculous ,goes
    to show the author of this nonsense knows little about Tolstoy and even less
    about Chopin .

    • At least one person has the unemotional depth and knowledge to understand what’s real or not. Silly you.

  • A typical case of verbal diarrhea. As long as the author gets his paycheck for it, anything goes. The poor public in their blissful ignorance don’t understand anything anyway, can sell them whatever you like. Not that I’d think the writer himself understands much. He might be a professional gossip columnist, but a music critic? There’s never been many good ones, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays. Btw. reminds me of that Beecham’s quote: “I don’t know if the British understand music, but they certainly love the noise it makes”.

  • I quite agree Norman over Trifinov- a wonderful musician first & a virtuoso second as it should be. I would add that Kissin is his equal and perhaps surpasses him in some repertoire

    • Kissin played the best Appasionata I have ever heard in Paris last March.Technically perfect, beautifully poised, never rushed, glorious sound and very exiting. Superb.

      • Yes, Kissin is a master. I’ve seen him at the Musikverein in an all-Liszt recital in 2011. Controlled, avoiding facial contortions and physical gyrations, he is ALL about the music.

  • He unleashes a passion as natural as a lion overtaking a gazelle and how he ever controls it with that unexpected precision is a wonder …. the middle portion of Chopin’s third etude Opus 10 is a pinnacle trip no artistic spirit should be denied … problem is how do you stop listening and get back to the routine; and Tchaikovsky’s First — impossibly incomparable.

    Forget critiquing the critic and shout thank you!

    • One thinks that perhaps you should be going to the zoo and not the concert hall, from Tolstoy to lions and gazelles tells why the art form is in its present
      state.This blog does indeed show the downward spiral to the understanding
      of the art form by many of its listeners . Music for a start is about sound , not
      Tolstoy , not lions and gazelles ,want pictures ? go to an art gallery .

          • You apparently keep a pet gazzelle and resent the thought of it being intimidated by anything as overwhelming as a lion (tick bites are also devastating, keep the repellant handy).

            Music is about the sound first and foremost and if it additionally paints pictures that help avoid visiting a zoo or gallery it is good to think of the fossil energy conserved.

      • You frustrated something… Again, show us how it’s done or just stay quiet. No skill and lot of words. Blablabla. You are the perfect example of a arrogant, self overestimating, frustrated, envious, depressed, meaningless little something. Everyone here pities you. Believe me…if you would know. Poor you.

  • Norman’s essay is a bit too caught up in its own journalistic rhetoric. I’m sure Mr. Trifonov is a fascinating person, but really, all one needs to do is just listen to him play the piano.
    There’s a free and ecstatic play of imagination here that sets him apart from Kissin et al.

  • If the only other contemporary pianist who comes up in conversation about Trifonov is Kissin, then it is by itself a very considerable compliment to the youngster. In my opinion, EK with his unique combination of intelligent musicality and brilliant virtuosity may be the most “perfect” living pianist overall. However, in some of the pieces that I have heard DT perform, both live in person and in recordings, he is able to communicate certain qualities that go beyond even EK’s abilities. Whether he is a “heir” or not is just semantics and as such it is irrelevant to me as a listener and as a musician. The important thing is that DT is already an original and intelligent interpreter as well as a brilliant performer.

    • I generally agree with your point of view, and can’t wait to for Trifonov get older, wiser and slow down with his tempi.

      • He will get older and wiser whether we want him to or not, but I wouldn’t equate slower tempi with being older and wiser. Speed is an integral part of interpretation and the former cannot be separated from the latter. His tempi by the way have never seemed excessive to me because they (unlike those by for example Lang Lang) are always so organically connected with DT’s highly individual approach and never prevent him from being extremely expressive and colorful. But I do agree with the comment below here — he would really benefit from improving his visually distractive posture and facial expressions.

        • His “peculiarities” will eventually blend into his distinctiveness and become positives.

          Meanwhile we all benefit from the products of his magical talent.

          • Music making is obviously the most important aspect and I personally don’t care much about the way a musician looks while performing, but objectively speaking any kind of visual distractions including those that are related to a musician’s unattractive personal appearance on stage are nothing but distractive indeed and thus can never “become positives” for many if not most listeners.

          • Sorry “positive” wrong word … “Brand essentials” … Liberace’s outfit, Glenn Gould’s mannerisms — hardly accepted initially but became an integral part of their image, inseparable from who they were.

            If Trifonov becomes as famous as he seems to be headed it wouldn’t surprise me to see future imitators of his quirks.

          • It is extremely unlikely that DT himself and/or those of us who admire his artistry would ever aspire for him to achieve Liberace’s brand of fame. In classical music world by the way this young pianist is already known well enough. These are different times now compared to more than half a century ago when Glenn Gould became a “star”: visual aspect of performances is playing ever-increasing role for ever-increasing percentage of classical music audiences. It may be irrelevant for you and me, but unfortunately I have heard too many devoted and well-meaning fans of classical music start describing their impressions of DT’s playing by talking about difficulty of enjoying his musicianship while seeing his bodily and facial contortions. That is the reality that I have in mind when I say that improving the way he looks on stage during his performances can only benefit him in the long run.

          • It’s sad to think anyone would forego the magical experience DT can offer just because of his appearance … be that as it may I have to wonder why in this discussion Mr. Rubenstein as well as the dynamic Ms. Wang haven’t been mentioned (she is more legitimate than Lang Lang though sometimes exceeding the speed limit).

          • It may be sad but it is reality. The last name of one of last century’s greats is Rubinstein. As for YW, “legitimacy” and (speed) “limits” are irrelevant for me. What’s important is that she is a fine musician and brilliant pianist.

  • I think there are roughly two groups of musicians when it comes to videos, those whose appearance and demeanor enhance the overall experience, and those who are best listened to without watching them. I am afraid Trifonov belongs to the latter category, although it is by no means uninteresting to see him play. The performance of Liszt sonata linked to in a comment above is indeed superb, as are so many others of him.

  • I don’t understand this worship of Trifonov. Yes, he is a fine pianist, but he is not some sort of “god” like a number of supposed critics seem to think he is. Music criticism is a very personal profession, and the resulting reviews are only relevant to readers if sensibilities match. There are no absolutes in music reviews, it is all personal opinion. For some reason many reviewers write as if their opinion is the ONLY opinion. What makes a good critic in my mind, is someone who tries to “guide” the reader to whether they might like a given artist’s performance and not talk in terms of absolutes as if the critic’s opinion is the ONLY right one.

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