Review: Daniil Trifonov takes on a rite of Bach and earns our reverence
By Matthew Guerrieri
An enduring modern criticism of classical-music performance recommends abandoning the hushed, insular reverence and church-like atmosphere of most concerts. Daniil Trifonov, apparently, has not gotten the message. On Wednesday, under the auspices of Washington Performing Arts, the Russian pianist turned the Kennedy Center Concert Hall into a house of devotion, with a service of meditation and praise, worshiping at the altar of Johann Sebastian Bach.
There was even a prelude and a postlude. Trifonov opened with Johannes Brahms’s transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Violin Partita, arranged for piano — left hand only. It was the program’s closest thing to a virtuoso showcase, displaying Trifonov’s formidable technique: cast-iron power, limpid sensitivity, impeccable control. Its accumulative, obsessive cast foreshadowed an evening of gravity and transport.
It was a cycle of discipline and euphoria, spiritual practice bringing forth ecstatic visions. The opening fugues surrounded ringing statements of the themes with a muscular, transparent hush. As the litany went on, the virtuosity became more cathartic: a rich, pugnacious “Contrapunctus VI,” a sweeping, intense, encyclopedic “Contrapunctus XI.”
How such a devout, substantial dose of musical theology played to a skeptic, or a novice or an agnostic, I’m not sure. For an adherent, though, it was food for the soul. It was also a reminder that the sacrosanct aura of classical performance should be a goal, not an expectation. Not many performances maintain the skill and conviction to warrant reverence. This one did.