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Music

A 'tender demon' - pianist Daniil Trifonov on tour

In 2011, Daniil Trifonov won the legendary Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at age 20. Three years later, the shy young man, who finds it easier to communicate in music than in words, is a star.

A film about Daniil Trifonov could begin with a flashback to 2008 and with a DW team filming a report about the Gnessin Music School in Moscow. This Soviet-era relic is now a musical boot camp for young artists from East and West. The renowned piano instructor Tatiana Zeligman recommends an interview partner, her 17-year-old student Daniil. "He's currently our most promising student. He's exceptional," she says.

First encounter: Moscow, November 2008

We meet Daniil Trifonov on a cold day in Moscow. Delicate features, shoulder-length brown hair, a hopelessly unfashionable sweater. He's no cool guy, no go-getter - but instead, shy and introverted, like his somewhat older compatriot Yevgeni Kissin once was. Another parallel emerges when Daniil says without hesitation, "I have a predilection for Romantic music. I'm probably a romantic person myself."

In 11th grade, Daniil is in his final year at the Gnessin academy. To finance his education in Moscow, his parents, both professional musicians, sold two apartments in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod. That kind of sacrifice is not uncommon among Gnessin's parents. With the sum they were able to afford a single-room apartment in a distant suburb of the capital. From there, Daniil commutes to school daily.

"It takes about two hours. I ride on the bus, then on the train, and finally on the subway," the boy explains, adding that he doesn't see it as a burden, as he can sleep, read and even practice in transit. "If you want to feel secure later on stage, you have to repeat every piece in your head many times over and play it out on your knees."

Daniil is anything but an extrovert. His answers are brief and quiet. He looks away and mumbles something. He can express himself much better in music. A camera sweeps the sparsely furnished classroom: the old piano with its scratched lid; the young musician bent over the keyboard like a cat arching its back, his face in a scowl of concentration; the unbelievably dexterous long fingers: Trifonov plays Chopin.

Daniil Trifonov, performing on stage (c) AP

In June 2011, Trifonov won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow

Second encounter: Cologne, January 2014

Five years later: backstage at the Cologne Philharmonic. Daniil Trifonov has just played Chopin‘s Second Piano Concerto to a sold-out house and many bravos. The musician is euphoric.

"My life has changed completely in the past few years," he says. In 2010, he won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw; in May 2011, the Rubinstein Competition in Israel; and one month later, the legendary Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Trifonov gave his first performances abroad with the influential Russian conductor Valery Gergiev but managed to quickly liberate himself from the omnipresent maestro. His most recent tours of Germany and the U.S., his recitals in the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall prove that this is an artist who goes his own way.

Pianist Daniil Trifonov performing on stage

Trifonov plays Chopin on his first CD as well

Daniil Trifonov has meanwhile matured artistically, but answering journalists' questions still presents a major challenge. His responses are brief, like those of a schoolboy. Daniil says he likes Germany because of the audiences here - and most of all for the brilliant concert grands that enable him to present himself in top shape. And when he plays for people who want to listen to him, he adds, that makes him really happy.

Does he want to visit the Cologne Cathedral? He saw it on a previous visit. This time, he'd rather go jogging or swim in the hotel pool. That will be relaxing and get his mind off music. But as for the train trip - he's playing in Berlin the following day - he'll use that time to compose.

A pianist's pianist

Unlike Alfred Brendel, a more intellectually-inclined pianist (and enthusiastic Trifonov fan), Daniil is a thoroughly subjective artist. His technique is so impeccable that with him, the rest is expression of identity in its purest form. That identity emerges in all the things he's not able to put into words: tenderness, depth, but sometimes also dark abysses. The famous Argentine pianist Marta Argerich, another Trifonov admirer, even hears something demonic in his touch.

"You need speed and dexterity to excel at piano competitions and to catch lice in a dark room," Trifonov’s teacher Tatiana Zeligman once said. "If you have individuality, technique is an added quality. But to become what you actually are - that’s what it’s all about."

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