A Town of Pianists

About Igor Levit and Daniil Trifonov

 In 2016 I had the privilege of attending live concerts of two great pianists: Igor Levit (born 1987) and Daniil Trifonov (born 1991).  Besides being pianists, they have something else in common, which I found interesting. After the concert of Trifonov, I remembered a recording of Vladimir Ashkenazy (Rachmaninow´s 2nd and 4th piano concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra & Bernard Haitink), another great Russian pianist (but of another generation).


What do the three pianists have in common? They are all from Russia? Correct. But it goes even further. They were all born in the same town called Nizhny Novgorod (formerly known as Gorki), a city located 250 miles east of Moscow with 1.2 million inhabitants – comparable to Dallas, Texas. Only that I don´t know three world-class pianists born in Dallas, let alone one.


 Gorki is also known for being the town where nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1975) Andrei Sakharov lived from 1980 to 1986 – not quite by his own will. The co-inventor of the Russian hydrogen bomb turned dissident had protested heavily against the Russian intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, after which the Russian government sent him to Gorki, a town then completely off-limits to foreigners, in internal exile.


 Vladimir Ashkenazy - born 1937 – started playing piano at the age of 6. After he won the Gold Medal of the Queen Elizabeth Piano Competition in Brussels, the Russian government sent him to the United States to give concerts there in 1958. He was provided with a passport specially for this trip. Remember these were the days of the Cold War, five years after Stalin had died. Even a privileged star-pianist such as Ashkenazy never could speak his mind in public and had to be very careful in a nation where the central government tried to control everything. He met an Icelandic pianist at the Moscow Conservatory (both were students there) whom he later married. He was able to emigrate to London with her in 1963 and moved to Iceland a couple of years later. Since 1982 he has been living in Switzerland.


 Not only of course is he a famous pianist, he became a conductor as well. The story is that when he lived in Iceland, he invited Daniel Barenboim to conduct two piano concertos: one with him as the pianist, the other with Pinchas Zuckerman. Zuckerman had to cancel because of illness, so for the remaining concert Barenboim spontaneously proposed to Ashkenazy: „You conduct it, I play the piano!“. So they did. The start of a conducting career....


The other thing I remember about Ashkenazy: he attended a concert of Glenn Gould – 5 years his senior and the first foreign pianist to play in the Soviet Union after 1945 – at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1957. Initially sparsely attended, the story goes that shortly after Gould started to play „The Art of the Fugue“ by Bach on the grand piano, attendees ran out to telephone their friends to immediately come and listen to Gould´s Bach playing, which was a complete relevation to Russian music students and professors at the time. At the second half of the concert, the hall was packed. Ashkenazy is quoted with saying of that concert: „You felt you were in the presence of a person totally ­absorbed in his strange and enigmatic world, who was at the same time in total control of what he was doing“. One of legendary concerts one wished one could have attended.


Igor Levit was taught to play the piano by his mother at the age of 3 – and gave his first piano concerto with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Nizhny Novgorod at the age of 6. His family moved to Hannover in 1995, where he started to study music at the age of 13. He concluded his studies by playing in his final exam the Diabelli Variatons – and received the highest note ever given in the history of the Music School. Meanwhile Levit is living in Berlin. Levit is said to be the innovator, the analytical pianist and an absolute perfectionist. He tries out new music – like from the composer Rzweski with whom he is befriended. I attended his concert in Bremen, where he spoke to the audience (with humor) before playing Rzweski´s piece „Dreams II“. He didn´t play the piece by heart, but had the scores with him on the piano – on a tablet. First time I saw that during a live concert. He played Bach, Beethoven and the Rzweski piece with much clarity and maturity.


He regularly stands in for colleagues who get ill or else. There is an anecdote, that as Levit is just in a cafe in Hannover he gets a call whether he can stand in for Maurizio Pollini in Vienna – in six hours. So he jumps on a plane and arrives at the concert hall 30 minutes before the concert starts.


Trifonov also learned at a young age to play the piano. He stayed in his hometown until the age of 8. In 1999 his moved with his parents to Moscow to study at the Gnessin Institute. After graduation he moved to the US to study with Sergey Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Whereas Levit seems to focus on Beethoven, Bach and modern 20th century music, Trifonov seems to focus on Chopin, Scriabin and since the age of 21 (only 5 years ago) on Rachmaninov – which he claims he had never played before. He now lives in both in New York City and Moscow – whilst not on tour, which he seems to be most of the time looking at his schedule.


Almost everywhere he goes and plays, he is regarded as a sensation by both the audience and the critics. With inexhaustible energy, he seems to master brilliantly Rachmaninov, Chopin, Listzt and Debussy in one evening – not just technically but with the whole range of musical emotions that these composers offer in their compositions. I saw him play Rachmaninov´s 2nd piano concert in Bremen and was thrilled.


Did Levit ever met Trifonov? I couldn´t find any info on that. But Ashkenazy met Trifonow: Ashkenazy conducted the 3rd piano concerto of Rachmaninov in 2015 with Trifonov as soloist. I wonder whether they spoke about their hometown. Reading the critics, that must have been an absolute wonderful performance.


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