Music / New York Arts

Tanglewood Stream Fishing Part 3-Daniil Trifonov Plays Bach’s Art of Fugue

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Tanglewood 2020:  Stream Fishing with Daniil Trifonov
August 11, 2020

J. S. Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge (Art of Fugue)
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Daniil Trifonov Wearing White Mask at Tanglewood August 2020
Daniil Trifonov Wearing White Mask at Tanglewood August 2020

Bach’s great monument to his fugal métier has become of increasing interest to pianists.  Daniil Trifonov’s. Art of Fugue is certainly the most passionate and exciting piano adaptation to date.  I still love Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s pianistic non-pianism, but Trifonov’s reading takes one’s breath away, an unusual reaction to this putatively cerebral work.

Trifonov is best known for applying his amazing finger-fleeting and monstrous technique in the late Romantic and Russian piano classics. Besides this repertory, I’ve heard some wonderful Mozart and Schumann.  Of late, perhaps since the pandemic, he has chosen seemingly the most chaste and intellectual of Bach’s late works.  Trifonov applies pedal, dramatic crescendos, some thunderous bass octaves, and yet consistently argues the work’s strongest suit:  the lucid and intricate interplay of counterpoint.  In making this work seem a Romantic tour-de-force, yet being true in spirit to the music’s main mission is really astonishing and tricky to pull off.  Having musical taste and a keen insight into Bach’s architecture gives room for his pianism.

Recent research has instructed us that the Art of Fugue is, indeed, a keyboard work and does not require a pedalboard (yes, those mirror fugues require trading voices and possessing a sizable hand span, but harpsichord keyboards at that time were narrower than pianos of today).  Musicologists are now certain that the “unfinished” fugue (originally on “three subjects”), left by Bach without integrating the main motif (as fourth subject), is the crowning final fugue.  It all makes sense:  Bach’s much used numerological signature was 14 (B =2, A = 1, C = 3, H = 8).  Also, Art of Fugue has fourteen pieces, omitting the canons and the never-performed arrangement for two keyboards.  The unfinished fourteenth fugue with Bach’s signature is certain to be the host of the main theme which easily slides into place.  So much of what we know now about this work has been revealed in harpsichordist Davitt Moroney’s recent research.

I always return to my reference performance, organist Helmut Walcha’s famous recording. Walcha hears the affecting two-note motif in #4 as intoning a pious, “Mein Gott, mein Gott.”  Trifonov, like others before him, see this fugue as a lighter, fast-pace piece devoid of such devotional intent, perhaps imitating the call “cuckoo, cuckoo.”  The “French Style” fugue #6, is perhaps the boldest of Trifonov’s transformations:  The bass line marches in octaves, while the heterogenous dotting in the treble voices is not played over-dotted, as is usual. Instead, the steady sixteenth-note passages are played inégales, something few interpreters try. This is a brilliant solution to the many rhythmic puzzles this fugue poses.  The related fugues #8 and #11 pass us by swiftly but coherently, with #11 being almost as grand as the final, #14.

Unlike Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (“WTC”), the Art of Fugue is a progressive fugal exploration of a single theme in a single key.  The set is treated with most of the artifices of tonal counterpoint: inversion, augmentation, diminution and invertible counterpoint.  A few other themes creep in, including Bach’s musical signature (Bb-A-C-B#).  There are, as mentioned earlier, “mirror fugues” which are pairs of fugues that are the same when flipped over, as in a mirror image.

Trifonov concludes his reading of #14 with his own completion. This is played subito piano to sort italicize and separate his own work from Bach’s original.  Other performances frequently leave off where Bach’s autograph does:  the sudden cessation after a glorious moment of grandeur has a questionable meta-musical effect: “Bach ist gestorben!”  He didn’t keel over while writing this, you know, but performers and audiences love to mourn the incompletion of Art of Fugue and the synchronous completion of Bach’s life.

The one problem with Trifonov’s approach is his delight in dynamically highlighting fugal entries. Daniel Barenboim’s lush WTC abounds in this sort of emphasis. After a while this treatment becomes tedious and predictable.  Trifonov’s indulgence here, though, never obscures the autonomy of the other voices, hence never shrouding the intricate texture.

While I’m sure Trifonov will record this, the image of this pianist’s slender bearing, long stringy hair, and a white face-mask added something macabre about this event, never to be captured on a simple recording.

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