Review: Commentary: Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’ now (by Daniil Trifonov) and then (by John Cage)
By Mark Swed
The news Sunday afternoon was a prodigious live performance of arguably the least performable and unarguably greatest contrapuntal exercise in the history of music, Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue,” by Daniil Trifonov at Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. Only 28, he is already one of the world’s most remarkable pianists. The legend grows.
Also a composer, Trifonov turns “The Art of the Fugue” into a genuine concert work in ways no one before seems to have. He doesn’t give equal length to contrapuntal lines. He doesn’t bog a listener down with trying to pick out all three or four or five or six different musical things flying by at the same time.
He instead puts emphasis on the theme coming and going as if it is a character in a novel having a host of adventures. The counterpoint flies by in the background. You know it’s there just as you know the jungle is there. The counterpoint flies by in the background. But you know it’s there, a thicket full of wonders.
Trifonov was often very fast. He exhibited the fluidity and flair of a Romantic pianist and of a modern pianist. He could be somber. He could be extravagant. He could be clever. He could be epic. He couldn’t stop being dramatic. And, most of all, he was stunningly in command. It was all ear music.
Although not so credited in the program, Trifonov completed the final fugue to provide a triumphant ending. His is not the first folly to sound like Bach. But he got away with it.
The momentum for the 90-minute performance, which was broken up by an intermission, was such that the train had left the station, and if Bach couldn’t keep it going, Trifonov had no choice other than to pilot. One cheered him on without second thoughts. Having heroically arrived, he gave thanks with Myra Hess’ arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and encores by three Bach sons, who were the ones who put “The Art of the Fugue” together after their father died.