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Arts Desk

Pianist Daniil Trifonov's look at the personal side of J.S. Bach

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Courtesy of the artist
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Pianist Daniil Trifonov, Musical America’s 2019 Artist of the Year, and a GRAMMY winner in 2018.

Acclaimed Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov’s most recent album, Bach: The Art of Life, takes a personal look at J.S. Bach— the husband and father—through his music. It also includes works by his sons, and music from a notebook of compositions created for his family's studies and entertainment.

This past fall he talked with us on Zoom and highlighted five of his favorite selections and the stories behind them. Watch the interview here:

1. J.S. Bach, Chaconne in D minor for the Left Hand (arranged by Johannes Brahms)
Not long after his first wife, Maria Barbara, died in 1720, Bach composed Chaconne in D minor as part of his Paritia in D minor for solo violin . Daniil plays Brahms’ transcription for the left hand:

“It's really an important work in Bach’s legacy,” he says. “And there is a proposition that it likely was written as a lament upon learning of the death of his first wife. I think through the spirit of the music, that idea makes a lot of sense; this is emotionally powerful music.”

Here he plays the Chaconne at the 2016 Verbier Festival:

2. J.S. Bach, The Art of Fugue - Contrapunctus 6 [per Diminutionem] in Stylo Francese

Daniil points us to number 6 from Art of the Fugue. “Actually, I really loved the organ versions of it; on organ, they very often double the bass in that particular fugue. There are some great transcriptions of organ music for piano. It's do-able on piano; not the entire thing like with organ, but in crucial moments it's possible.”

“Another interesting thing about it: it says it's in the French style. Something I learned not so long ago, actually, is that there are rhythmical rules that govern the French style, and one of them is that depending on the meter, the shorter notes need to be syncopated like [he sings pump pump pump].

“This is a very interesting fugue where I basically combine those two ideas: one from the organ performance practice, and another from this technique, with a French style.”

3. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Allegretto con variazioni (“Ah, vous dirai-je, maman”)

Daniil plays the 18 playful variations of this work by Bach’s son, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795).

“Well, I was discovering the music of all his children. And this piece is interesting because it was finished in 1792. Mozart had already died. Beethoven was already writing his piano concerto. It’s already a window into another epoch, and I thought was interesting to see the range of time.”

4. From the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Polonaise in D minor

On this recording, Daniiil plays selections from Bach’s family notebook compiled for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. It includes pieces by family members, and some untitled, anonymous works, such as this Polonaise in D minor.

“The interesting thing about the piece is that it was one of the only ones that didn't have any title. Many of them did not have a composer written down, but all of them had a title unless it was a variation on an already existing one. It’s a bit puzzling. I find it's a very beautiful piece itself."

“The title Polonaise was added later and it's not 100% that it was supposed to be called polonaise in the first place. I mean, it could have been polonaise, as many polonaises were slow back back then, and didn't have [sings: pump ba ba pum pum.]”

“We don't know really what its name is and who wrote it.”

5. From The Art of Fugue - Contrapunctus 14, fragment, completed by Trifonov
The penultimate work on the album is the last piece from The Art of Fugue, left unfinished by J.S. Bach.

“In the beginning I thought to leave it unfinished,” says Daniil, “but when I had so much time during pandemic, I wrote several different endings.”

In the end, he says, he found that the rules of polyphonic writing helped guide him.

“That's actually something that makes it easier to write in this in polyphonic style, because in a more romantic style, you sometimes don't know what to do, because there are so many choices. In polyphonic, if you make one mistake, it's very clear, or if you try to do something that diverts too much from the rules, it doesn't work anymore and it doesn't make any sense.”

“It seems very complex but actually it's governed by a very clear rules and what I basically did was take over 4 themes. Then I just made sure to go in a simple route where all of 4 themes would pass one time in each of 4 voices; the first two times would be in a classical setting, and the second two times every single theme would be inverted.”

“I also played around with the theme going backwards, and it also works as well! It's something that he would do in music often. There is one canon like that, but in this,The Art of Fugue … maybe if if he lived longer, he would employ some of the those techniques that he used in other music.”

The Importance of Nature to Bach

Reverence for nature, says Trifonov, was part of Bach’s inspiration, but not in a sentimental way.

“Nature here is not emotional. I was reading Eliot Gardiner’s book, Music in the Castle of Heaven. When Bach was was writing the music for the Church, the polyphonic music and nature itself was all proof of a higher consciousness -- or proof of God, basically, and just the logic for the universe. “That's one of the reasons why the church supported so much polyphonic music, because it saw it as a key to the deeper understanding of God.”

"And in that sense, nature is part of that same concept, nature being a miracle of the universe."

Bach’s Embrace of Emotion

"When it comes to emotion, yes, actually that's one of the great things about Bach. No matter how complex the music, he still manages to have so much emotion in it . There are parts in The Art of Fugue that have as much emotional content as, let's say, Chaconne in D minor. It’s not just scientific music to make some scientific point; It also has a lot of emotional power as well."