Bach’s ultimate statement is not something to be taken lightly, or performed even just adequately. The Art of Fugue is a work that demands, and deserves, mastery. Without instrumental assignment, the set of fourteen fugues and four canons has been taken on by organ, string quartet and any number of instrumental ensembles. It’s objective, Bach’s modus operandi, is an exploration of counterpoint in four voices. Daniil Trifonov isn’t the first pianist to take it on, not by a long shot, but his passionately succinct reading for Tanglewood’s “Great Performers in Recital” streaming series (which premiered 8th August and is available through the 15th) made for an extraordinary statement from a performer (and, more recently, composer) still staking the boundaries of his own art.

Daniil Trifonov © Boston Symphony Orchestra
Daniil Trifonov
© Boston Symphony Orchestra

Trifinov gave a calm and measured delivery, without score, alternately looking up to the ceiling – or to the heavens – and bending over the keyboard in a convincing Glenn Gould posture. Sometimes serene, sometimes quite plucky, his fingers hopping about the keyboard, the left floating, dancing sometimes, above the keys when not needed, he sat alone in the wood-lined studio, picture windows letting in the light of a bright June day. The sunshine through the open blinds and footlights bouncing off the acoustic tiles painted the piano in refracted orange and grey stripes. 

It all made for a dramatic scene. Trifonov – in white mask, white t-shirt, suit jacket, trainers and brightly colored socks, his hair a kind of rock-star unkempt – looked like a student (he’s all of 29) but played like the classical celeb that he is. He built his reputation on interpreting the Romantics, which perhaps informs his more recent Bach recitals. The pianist gave the great man’s swan song a youthful energy, a sense of adventure, an air of discovery without losing focus. This was not contemplative Bach. He unfolded Bach’s mysteries in appreciation, approaching them like a flower that blooms every morning, new perhaps to someone passing by for the first time, beautiful no matter how many times it’s been seen. He played with a deep appreciation, possessing the pianissimo and inhabiting the forte. His pronouncements were sometimes bold, but the tempi were kept strictly. In that respect, he exhibited plainly the mastery of Bach’s architecture. The camerawork was busy but graceful, cross fading between multiple angles, generally with slow pans, a bit impatient but stopping just short of distraction, if only because it takes an awful lot to take attention from Bach’s spires built atop spires. 

The fact that Bach left the final fugue unfinished is a problem each performer must address – not solve, necessarily, but face in some fashion. Endless addenda, cadenzas and encores have been attempted, rarely more satisfyingly than Bach’s own, incomplete thought. Trifonov’s solution was beautiful in its simplicity, slowing to a quiet crawl and adding his own phrases, the final chord seeming to close as naturally as a flower at the end of the day.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

*****