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Virtual Aspen Music Fest review: Trifonov’s soulful, winning Bach

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Pianist Dannil Trifonov performing from his home in Connecticut on Sunday.
Screenshot/aspenmusicfestival.com

Pianist Daniil Trifonov does not shy away from big challenges. For his recital at last summer’s Aspen Music Festival he strung together piano works representing each decade of the 20th century into a marathon exploration of modern classical pianism.

For the festival’s virtual concert Sunday, streamed from Trifonov’s home in Connecticut, the Russian-born pianist tackled “The Art of Fugue,” which J.S. Bach left unfinished at his death in 1750. Over a 10-year period, history’s greatest counterpoint composer spun a singular strand of melodic material into an hour-long tapestry that summed up everything he knew about the fugue.

Finding the piece’s depths poses quite a test for a pianist who has not yet reached his 30th birthday. Trifonov not only prevailed but put his own stamp on the music. He focused on bringing out the lyrical soul of this music without compromising the necessary rhythmic pulse or the Baroque fugue’s strict architecture. He also offered his own completion of Bach’s work by writing his own ending for the finale, and it’s a good one.

At his Fazioli grand piano, set up in a corner of his living room before a backdrop of white Venetian blinds, Trifonov applied a tenderness and sweetness to the first four fugues, even introducing some gentle rubato to allow phrases to breathe. The fourth picked up the pace with a soft lilt balanced against crisp attacks as phrases emerged from the counterpoint, and the fifth settled into an introspective quiet.

The sixth, “In a French Style,” stepped out boldly with stentorian octaves, kept to a steady tempo and introduced some pedal to produce bigger sounds. Even as the key stayed in D minor, Trifonov found variety in different colors for the succeeding fugues — lively and bright in the ninth, melancholy in the 10th, building from a quiet hush to a plateau of richness in No. 11.

In the next two, the contrasts felt like turning a corner from a slow, dreamy 12th to dancing in the sunlight with the triplets of the 13th. Actually these both are two fugues each, as Bach turns the material of each fugue upside down for a second go. With tempo and touch, using pedal judiciously, the pianist conjured different emotional effects with each one.

In the final, extensive triple fugue Bach went against expectations by aiming for quiet contemplation rather revving up for a big finish. It goes on for longer than most of the other fugues, even though Bach left it unfinished at the point where it introduces a new figure, a four-note sequence that spells out “B-A-C-H.”

Several composers have taken a shot at writing a finish, often picking up the figure and running with it in their own styles. Trifonov, a composer in his own right, opted to stick to Bach’s rules of fugue writing. His finish is not at all showy. It summons a kind of serene beauty, and lets the music unfold gently until it reaches a sigh of a finish.

If you missed the Sunday broadcast, it’s repeated once Tuesday at 7 p.m. accessed via the Aspen Music Festival website, YouTube channel, or Facebook page.

COMING THIS WEEK

Next Sunday at 3 p.m. cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, Aspen regulars both, play a couple of Beethoven cello sonatas. Faculty artist Yohaved Kaplinsky hosts a student showcase of solo pianists Wednesday at 5 p.m. And Thursday at 5 p.m. Jonathan Haas and fellow percussionist Timothy Adams is to talk with students about what it takes to make a successful career. These midweek events are available on demand through August 25.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the early 1990s. His reviews appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.


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