Daniil Trifonov: The Art of Life

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It has been around a decade since Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov burst onto the classical scene, during which time he has continued to astound both on stage and on disc as a Deutsche Grammophon artist.

Trifonov’s recorded catalogue has thus far been dominated by virtuoso (and predominantly Russian) romantic repertoire, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin looming large alongside the expected Chopin and Liszt discs.

For his latest release, however, Trifonov has ventured into fresh territory. Bach: The Art of Life brings together Johann Sebastian’s monumental late work The Art of Fugue and the early-classical works of four of his sons, JC, WF, CPE and JCF, with electrifying results…

Bach: The Art of Life

Reading through Oscar Alan’s excellent CD booklet note, which is based around personal conversations with Trifonov about the album, it quickly becomes clear that the pianist has with this recording set about exploring Bach the man, in all his humanity: his loves, his family, his personality, his worldview, and the place that music found within that broader personal landscape.

Trifonov notes,

“Bach is of course a legend, an icon, a musical brand. History sets him, like many geniuses, on a pedestal: untouchable and unmoving, like a sculpture.
We know Bach was a pious man, and that he worked very hard. Yet we also know that Bach was a family man, and that he fell in love (more than once); his music tells us he had a sense of humour, a sense of melancholy, and a sense of pride. He knew how to have fun. There are many indications of a real, personal biography to a composer whose creativity was fired by a passionate soul.”

Before culminating in Bach’s monolithic, mystical masterpiece The Art of Fugue, Trifonov’s programme interweaves these threads, incorporating the works of four of his sons, a personal selection from the Bach family album, Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (including a piece which Trifonov speculates may have been Bach and Anna Magdalena’s personal “love song”) and Myra Hess’s sublime arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, a valedictory salute to the personal faith that seems to have been a central preoccupation of Bach’s life.

Bestride these contrasts, Trifonov inserts Brahms’ left-hand-only transcription of the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita no.2 in D minor for Violin Solo, an anguished Chaconne composed shortly after the early death of Bach’s first wife, and which Trifonov describes as,

“one of the most powerful, sorrowful and tragic pieces ever written.”

Here’s the full programme:

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)
Sonata No.5 in A major

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784)
Polonaise No.8 in E minor

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Rondo in C minor Wq 59/4 (H 283)

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795)
Allegretto con variazioni (“Ah, vous dirai-je, maman”) Wf 12/2

Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach

J.S.Bach / Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Chaconne in D minor for the Left Hand (Piano Studies No.5)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue

J.S. Bach / arr. Myra Hess
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Trifonov’s Art of Bach

Trifonov’s take on the classicism of the represented sons of Bach is notable for combining effortless elegance with an impression of improvisatory freedom. Phrase shapes have insouciant charm, textures an alert clarity, and pulse a flexibility that is both rooted in and subversive towards authenticity.

Imbuing all these pieces, there’s an infectious joy that the modern instrument, virtuoso performer and intellectual curiosity have combined to deliver such effervescent results.

In his booklet comments, Trifonov traces a line of influence from JC Bach to Mozart, from CPE Bach to Beethoven, from WF Bach to Chopin, and from JCF Bach to Rossini. In his performances of their music, he strengthens his case considerably.

In the delicate grace and emotion of WF Bach’s Polonaise No.8 for example, we enter the subdued and intimate hush of a Chopin Nocturne, while the fizz of JCF’s Ah! vous dirai-je, maman variations surely bubbles more deliciously here than it does in any recording of Mozart’s similar variation set (written later in the same decade).

The twelve pieces selected from the Anna Magdalena notebook include such favourites as the Musette in D and two Minuets in G, nicely contrasted with less ubiquitous slower movements that will be for some a lovely discovery.

The subsequent change of colour is stark, the Bach/Brahms Chaconne in D minor delivered here with that full-bodied romanticism that we perhaps more typically associate with this performer. And these same relatively modern qualities define The Art of Fugue. This isn’t the approach to Bach that I would associate with my choice players for the composer: András Schiff, Murray Perahia or Angela Hewitt. But it is compelling, nonetheless.

The Art of Fugue is perhaps Bach’s most singular tour de force in his relentless ongoing exploration of polyphony, according to Trifonov,

“For Bach, polyphony was the most powerful tool to both describe and express nature… The Art of Fugue represents the seminal musical expression of Bach’s personal, spiritual, scientific and humanistic knowledge.”

The work comprises fourteen fugues of increasing complexity, occasionally interspersed with four related canons, all in a single key and based on the same four-bar theme. Unfinished at his time of death, the fourteenth fugue is completed for this performance by Trifonov himself, applying the same logic and technique used by Bach throughout the rest of the cycle. There is no telling where Bach ends and this performer takes over, but taken in its sum there’s no denying that this performance has Trifonov’s name on it.

Reflecting on his interpretive approach, Trifonov explains:

“After listening to the work at home and in concert for more than two years, my wife suggested another narrative: each fugue can be a different person entering a church, each a complex psychological emotional portrait of that person and their individual motivation for being drawn to prayer… we can hear how vulnerable, sensitive, nostalgic and even wounded these humans are. There is fear and insecurity about one’s forgiveness in front of God. Seen in this way, The Art of Fugue is a deeply psychological work.”

The power of this supposed narrative cannot be ignored when listening to Trifonov’s extraordinarily humane interpretation, the contrast between each piece in the cycle riveting. From powerful bravura, through flighty but fundamentally unbalanced electricity, to serene beauty, here is an Art of Fugue like no other. And I love it!

Closing Thoughts

Daniil Trifonov is an artist who hitherto I have greatly admired, but without finding myself completely won over. In Bach: The Art of Life he has taken ownership of music within which he has perhaps been more fully able to show his intellectual calibre and artistic personality.

It is commendable to play Rachmaninov a little better than others; it is surely artistry on another level to play Bach in a way that stunningly reveals whole new facets to the composer’s personality and psychological relevance, while simultaneously elevating the performer’s gift.

One of the most surprising and undeniably interesting recordings of the year, Bach: The Art of Life deserves and demands to be listened to time and again. Here is a recording that effortlessly and gracefully ascends to the highest pinnacle of our musical culture.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.