Two series presented by the New York Philharmonic, each in a different space, offer a chance to experience different sides of two piano greats.
Daniil Trifonov—Musical America’s 2019 Artist of the Year and former New York Philharmonic Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence for the 2019-20 season—has made a spectacular ascent in the classical music world since his NY Phil debut in 2012, returning every concert season and even joining the Orchestra’s Board. A Grammy Award winner whom The Times of London dubbed “the most astounding pianist of our age,” Trifonov came to these shores after a Triple Crown of contests: Warsaw’s Chopin Competition, Tel Aviv’s Rubinstein Competition, and Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition.
On November 16–19 he is offering New York Philharmonic concertgoers something even more extraordinary: Duo performances in which he is joined by Sergei Babayan, his former teacher, who is making his NY Phil debut.
In the Wu Tsai Theater the two will join forces in composer Béla Bartók’s exciting Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, a 20th-century masterpiece. Following the Saturday concert, on November 19, they will transition from the epic to the intimate, moving to the Kenneth C. Griffin Sidewalk Studio (the street-level space at the corner of 65th Street and Broadway, visible to passersby) for a late-night, cabaret-style performance on the NY Phil’s Kravis Nightcap series.
This is a musical partnership to marvel at, given the length and depth of their artistic relationship. “The first time I heard him play Rachmaninoff ’s First Sonata,” remembers Babayan of his former student, “we had only one lesson, and I realized right away that he didn’t need lessons. A personality of that caliber doesn’t need more training.” When they began performing together, they found they could achieve a kind of alchemy. “The energy I got from him and the energy he got from me — it was like playing with the greatest chamber music partner,” explained the older musician. “We don’t need to speak in rehearsals. We just play and we understand each other.”
That isn’t easy to do in the Bartók concerto, which received its US Premiere in 1943 by the New York Philharmonic, with Fritz Reiner conducting and the composer and his wife, Ditta, as soloists. The score is filled with Bartók’s signatures—such as meter changes, passages that slowly speed up, sudden shifts of tempo, odd rhythms, and broad, tranquil sections that alternate with rapid outbursts. “It is incredibly powerful material,” says Trifonov. “One of his most immense works.” He is unconcerned about the challenge of performing this piece for the first time, in part because of his history with this partner. “I think that because I studied with Babayan we have a similar understanding. We played the Chopin Rondo for two pianos, which is also quite complex.”
The two pianists agree on a performing ideal, which rests on spontaneity and a special sensitivity to the moment. “I’m not the kind of person who plays the same way twice,” explains Babayan, “and I always told Daniil not to repeat himself. If he does something un-usual, I have to answer. When we play together there are beautiful, unexpected things.
”That edge-of-your-seat consciousness extends even to the planning of their less formal Kravis Nightcap performance, in which they’ll be announcing the repertoire from the stage. “We don’t know ourselves yet,” Trifonov said in early September. “Probably there will be some Rachmaninoff.”
Certainly, there will be thrills.