recalls Babayan. “He listened to one page and said, ‘We’ll
give him a full scholarship.’ ”
At their first lesson, the teacher assigned several works
by Chopin, and by the time of their next meeting, Trifonov
had memorized them all. Soon after, he declared his desire
to enter the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which was
to take place the following year—something that normally
requires three or four years of preparation. Babayan
was willing, with one reservation: He insisted that his
student not include any repertoire that he had previously
performed. Trifonov agreed, entered, and won third place.
Babayan maintains his protégé was actually the best in the
Though in time the pupil outgrew the need for a
contest and says that some expert observers, including jury
member Martha Argerich, agreed. But the young pianist
was quite happy. “It was the most stressful competition I
ever entered—there were 20 performers in the first round,
so I felt lucky to make it through,” he says. “We had only 15
or 20 minutes to play, and it is difficult to get settled in such
a short amount of time. You barely start and it ends.”
Tatiana Zelikman was prescient. In the end, Babayan’s
aesthetic outlook—stressing both communicativeness and
taste—perfectly suited the young Russian’s. “I want the
piano to speak like the human voice,” explains the teacher.
Beyond mere mechanical execution, this requires insight
into the particular qualities that distinguish a composer’s
vernacular: “Horowitz said you should play Mozart with
the sensitivity of Chopin, and Chopin with the simplicity
of Mozart. In other words, Chopin should be pure and
classical, Mozart more sensual and romantic.” Trifonov’s
prize-winning accounts of Chopin and Mozart were shaped
by such ideas, along with a tireless search for the technical
means to achieve them.
master, the two remain close. “I heard him perform the
Rachmaninoff First Piano Sonata,” recounts Babayan of
Trifonov. “I swore I was in the presence of a great Russian
aristocrat, one who understood Rachmaninoff’s meaning
and Russian culture very deeply. There are some former
students you hear after five years, and feel embarrassed.
With Daniil you know that if tomorrow you no longer exist
Leonidas Kavakos and Trifonov, masters of violin and piano chamber
music at the Verbier Festival, July 29, 2014. Photo: © Aline Paley/Verbier.
Trifonov makes his debut at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York, during its annual summer festival, July 2018.
Photo: © Gabe Palacio.
ARTIST of the year