Bach via Trifonov

There’s a rare genius in the playing of Daniil Trifonov – he becomes the music, fusing himself to the instrument and the works, forging unified art with the tools of a keyboard and masterful compositions.  The almost 29-year-old’s matinee performance last Sunday at Chicago’s Symphony Center marked the second time I’ve had the privilege of hearing him – the first was in March of 2017.  Of that first concert’s Shostakovich Fugue Cycle I wrote, “I’ve never personally heard a piano played so well.”

A Grammy and three years have done nothing but improve the Russian born star – his program plumbed depths of subtlety and expression.  Part of this performance’s genius was in the selection of the pieces for the program – the all-Bach playlist.  All Bach, yes, but it’s not quite that simple.  The hands of others – not just Trifonov’s – can clearly be discerned in each of the three programmed pieces.

The Chaconne for left hand piano, arranged by Brahms in 1877, is the 1720 Bach Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin, universally recognized as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (sometimes people add “for solo violin,” and sometimes they don’t). Brahms, a virtuoso pianist and composer, felt the Chaconne to be basically divine, writing, “If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”  It’s tough to imagine making any changes at all to Bach’s partita, but Brahms’s arrangement, under the left hand of Trifonov, was celestial.  Tears were flowing so freely at Symphony Center it was almost embarrassing.

The Art of the Fugue is one of Bach’s major compositions – like the Well-Tempered Clavier, it is both an exercise and a piece of art.  Rooted in one theme, Bach composed fourteen fugues and four canons – the complex and disparate variations go on for over an hour – Trifonov decided to split them over intermission.  The work was unfinished during Bach’s lifetime, and others have done work to reconstruct his intent and finished the final fugue.

Trifonov’s final programmed piece, also modified Bach, was the exquisite Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, excerpted from cantata number 147, originally written in 1723 and arranged by Dame Myra Hess in 1926.

Trifonov followed up the main program with some excellent Bach encores, but despite being front and center, I couldn’t make out their titles as he announced them from the stage (I believe one of them was a movement from an A Major Sonata).  Like many performers I’ve seen, Trifonov could improve on his encore-announcing capabilities!

It’s a joy to watch a pianist who, at 28, has absolutely nothing to prove.  As he has the world over, Trifonov has developed quite a following at Symphony Center.  While he doesn’t have a recital scheduled for next year, he’ll be in concert with the Symphony for a Prokofiev Piano Concerto next June. I’m not sure that concert will make the cut for me next season, but I do look forward to the next time I get to see this man and his piano.

Thanks for reading.


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