Everyone in the Philadelphia Orchestra could assume, even before collaborating with pianist Daniil Trifonov, that he was much more than your typical hot competition winner.
When he recorded Rachmaninoff with the orchestra in March in Philadelphia, it was under costly studio conditions, unusual for any major recording company working in America. The Deutsche Grammophon production was made from scratch, not in concert - rare since the CD heyday of the 1990s.
Trifonov, 24, played Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with relentless tenacity, take after take, hour after hour, never letting the tension go slack, according to musicians present.
The just-released disc, titled Variations, was named Recording of the Month by Gramophone magazine - "A great one," wrote critic Jeremy Nicholas, "clearly up there with the very best," with high marks also for orchestra and recorded sound.
"Getting the emotional charge in the conditions of a studio recording . . . it is important to keep it like a concert atmosphere," Trifonov said the other day in a phone interview from Pittsburgh. "In my case, once the first recording [take] is done, the rest is almost like an encore. You can actually be more emotionally free during the following sessions."
"That doesn't surprise me," said Yoheved Kaplinsky, the Juilliard School faculty member who encountered Trifonov at the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, where she was a juror. "What sets him apart from the other pianists is that he clearly cares about every note. It's infectious. He has personality without being quirky.
"And when he plays the right repertoire," she said, "there's nobody like him."
Though his Philadelphia Orchestra performances this week of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 count as his first subscription concerts here, Trifonov seems to be returning to where he has never officially been. He has played the same composer's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though in Saratoga, N.Y. The Kimmel Center recording sessions weren't public, but his recitals in New York and Princeton drew a certain amount of Philadelphia traffic after his well-publicized 2011 first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Competition.
Rachmaninoff famously recorded his major works with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But Trifonov's Rachmaninoff programing here isn't merely a sentimental choice. "One can feel that the music is almost in their genes. ... It comes very effortlessly and very naturally," he said. "That makes the whole music-making experience incredibly exciting. It's a great joy to be coming back."
Choosing the infrequently heard Piano Concerto No. 4 is in keeping with his missionarylike zeal to play a complete Rachmaninoff cycle, which is rare. Though among the most popular composers ever, Rachmaninoff wrote a number of major works that are unknown to the larger public. The Piano Concerto No. 4 has a fraught history of bad reviews and many revisions. Though there's a groundswell opinion that the original version is best, Trifonov prefers the final published edition.
For him, the concerto is more an ensemble piece than other concertos - "it's his most interwoven work" - and shows the composer trading his usual heavy Imperial Russian orchestral brocade for something more dapper and modern. Trifonov is intrigued by how Rachmaninoff kept changing the piece and, in general, changed his own performances of his works significantly over the years, suggesting these monumental-sounding works were always evolving in his mind. Trifonov can discuss minute details of how Rachmaninoff changed notes and tempos.
After all, he shows signs of following in the composer's dual-career footsteps. Initially educated at Moscow's Gnessin School of Music, the Nizhny Novgorod-born Trifonov was officially a student at the Cleveland Institute two years after his Tchaikovsky Competition win (and still meets privately with his Cleveland teacher, Sergei Babayan), while also nurturing composing ambitions. Last year, his First Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was premiered there and repeated in recent weeks with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The jury is still out on that part of Trifonov's life, though writing his own works can't help but have a healthy spillover in his understanding of other composers. In the 19th century, pianists (not just Rachmaninoff) frequently composed their own vehicles. But Trifonov may well go beyond that: He's working on a concerto for Gidon Kremer - a concerto for violin and piano whose main precedent is a childhood work by Mendelssohn.
Having such counterpoint in his life can also be seen as insurance against the burnout that can happen to musicians with big careers at a young age. "One always worries," says Kaplinsky, who has observed Trifonov's social awkwardness, almost like an Olympic swimmer out of place on dry land.
Trifonov enjoys hiking, swimming, and yoga and hastens to add that he studies art forms other than music. Russian politics appears to be a blind spot; he says he's too preoccupied with music to discuss such issues. Yet he can't be said to be living in a musical cocoon: Many young musicians travel with a family entourage, but he circles the globe alone.
Though he spends more time in Moscow and New York than anywhere else, he says home is "where the most important people in my life are - parents, girlfriend, and teachers." Of course, physical stamina is a big issue even with a middling load of 85-plus concerts a season. But, Trifonov says, "it's important to have enough emotional energy for a performance."
Where he grows quiet is on the subject of his often-observed resemblance to the glamorous young Franz Liszt. After a long pause, he says, "I've also been compared Schumann," who was rather less glamorous. Maybe he just looks like Daniil Trifonov.
Daniil Trifonov with the Philadelphia Orchestra
8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Friday and Sunday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.