April 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Magic hands

By Chloe Hooper
Russian piano superstar Daniil Trifonov teaches a masterclass in Melbourne

Backstage at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the muffled notes of the foyer’s warning bell sound. It’s two minutes until the 26-year-old Russian super-virtuoso, Daniil Trifonov, is required on the salon stage to run a masterclass. Trifonov – who is nearing the end of his first Australian tour – stretches his pectoral muscles by angling a long, lean arm against a wall. In his spare hand he clasps a takeaway coffee. Balancing the cup, he holds open the door to the stage’s sound lock for three university students who are about to play for him. “Start travelling,” directs the stage manager, and the pianist steps out into the applause of a hundred or so fans and aspiring musicians.

The first student, Nikki Wei, performs Maurice Ravel’s La valse.

As Trifonov sits reading the score, it is difficult to believe this self-contained man in a neat blue suit is the shapeshifter who mesmerised an audience here the night before, and roused them into un-Melbourne-like fervency. During that performance, he seemed to caress, paw and attack the keyboard, or to be under attack himself – jolting mid-note, hair flying, off the piano stool. The only clue that this is the same person is his response to the music. Suddenly the pianist will give an involuntary jerk, or lean as if pulled forward in his chair, his hand twitching to hit a particular note.

Trifonov stands and walks over to the piano, gesturing politely for Wei to stop.

“So, very impressive,” he begins. “I have a couple of suggestions … Here [the piece’s opening] it’s quite a mystical and magical moment, so in terms of the touch, I think you can delve into the key a little bit deeper, trying to pull something out of the bottom of the keyboard. Rather than pressing the key, [you’re] digging something out of the key.”

Every few notes Wei plays, Trifonov interjects with a new alchemical suggestion: “Play a little bit forward on this key,” or “[Use] the slice of the knuckle,” or “[Try] a very kind of flying wrist,” or “Here, the hand should be [as if it has] no bones completely, like a fish tail. It’s not the fingers playing, it’s the wrist trembling.”

Eventually the Recital Centre’s director of artistic planning, Marshall McGuire, stands and tries to get Trifonov’s attention. “I’m mindful we’re on page 5,” he says, ruefully, “and there are 43 pages of La valse.”

The next student, Joshua Hooke, performs Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C.

When he finishes, Trifonov takes his place at the Steinway to show Hooke an exercise he believes can help give clarity to each note.

Trifonov’s hands, trained to hyper-flexibility, are reflected in the piano’s mirror-like polish. As a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Trifonov would go out into the icy cold and then return to play Chopin, experimenting with his hands’ endurance. He also began a regimen of yoga and started practising under water to build resistance. This almost scientific rigour and curiosity infuses many things Trifonov does. Later, in private, he reveals he has only given seven or eight masterclasses before, but he’s found it can benefit his critical perspective on his own playing. “You are listening from the side, and then you are practising yourself and you also listen more from the side.”

“Which finger do you use here?” the pianist asks Hooke, playing a few luscious notes. “Rachmaninov used to say it is like destroying a cherry by pressing on it – that was his idea of cantabile.”

Hooke attempts this warm, song-like sound, this “cherry-pushing”.

“Oh!” Trifonov exclaims. “That’s it.” He looks up and smiles.

The final student, Adam McMillan, plays Piano Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor by Alexander Scriabin – Trifonov’s favourite composer. Trifonov reads the score like it’s a letter from an old friend. He nods in agreement, or gives the quiver of a smile, and even a slight chuckle, as if the notes have reminded him of some past lark. Then comes the muscle memory and his whole body twitches.

“Scriabin’s work is all about colour,” he announces when McMillan is finished. He tells us the composer was a synaesthete who built a machine in his Moscow apartment engineered to combine sound and colour. (Trifonov is also a synaesthete: C major is for him, like for Scriabin, red.)

He counsels McMillan on achieving greater colour in the music. “I think the touch is quite right here, but [can you give] a bit more freedom in between the notes? Whenever in Scriabin you have fortissimo you can completely release the weight of the hand. Quite often he uses a term in his work volante, flying, and in his music in general the flight itself is very important. Don’t be afraid to use that amplitude … It’s like the paw of some animal here.” He plays a series of notes as if as a bear, declaiming, “Animals move with great purity.” Trifonov’s bear paws turn into a demonstration of wild playing.

“More, more, more!” calls a woman from the audience.

Trifonov glances over and briefly smiles, before continuing to urge McMillan to make use of “vertical distance”.

Soon he’s demonstrating this feat too. It’s almost as though Trifonov can’t stand to be not touching the keys, and when he does – even to illustrate short passages – it sounds like a different instrument, making colourful, flying, trembling, fish-tailed, cherry-stained sounds.

After McGuire has finally called time on the lesson, and Trifonov is again backstage, he admits to having felt more nervous leading up to this masterclass than before his extraordinarily gruelling concert the night before. Once the lesson had begun, however, he remembered, that a spot of teaching is, in fact, “much easier than playing a concerto”.

The students thank the smooth-browed master, who is only a few years older than they are, and drift away, presumably inspired and we hope not dejected. Can Trifonov’s artistry actually be taught?

Meanwhile, Trifonov himself walks from his dressing room almost like an interloper, like someone who just happened to take the wrong turn and found himself in the maze of a major concert hall. He locates the exit and walks quickly into the warm night air.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of several books, including A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man. Her latest book, The Arsonist, is out now.

April 2017

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