IDAGIO Meets … Daniil Trifonov

The superstar pianist talks to IDAGIO about his new album, built around Bach's monumental The Art of Fugue.

Daniil Trifonov (photo © Dario Acosta)

For his newest album, "Bach: The Art of Life", superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov turns to the music of J.S. Bach and his sons, with a programme built around The Art of Fugue. He talks to IDAGIO about tackling this complex masterpiece and the concept behind the album.  

Several artists have talked about turning to Bach to help them through the pandemic, was this also the case with you?

This is actually something that I started a year before the pandemic. The Art of Fugue is something that takes longer than most other pieces to learn, and it's probably the longest time I've ever spent on a piece. I started playing it shortly before the pandemic, when I had maybe six or seven concerts with this programme, which was of course a lot less than was originally planned.

What made you feel like it was time to tackle The Art of Fugue?

It was suggested to me by my teacher, Sergei Babayan. He gave me the idea some time ago. I had a lot of other things I was working on, but eventually began on The Art of Fugue. Of course, this is a piece that's extremely fascinating when you look at the score and how to work with the material. It's one thing to write a fugue on a single theme, but quite another to write a lot of different counterpoints that are so complex using the same theme. It's a whole other league of polyphonic complexity.

Did you have any difficulty finding your way into this notoriously complex work?

I always loved performing the music of Bach, and this is one of the reasons why Tatiana Zelikman, my former teacher in Moscow, wanted me to study with Sergei Babayan in Cleveland – she revered his Bach so much. With The Art of Fugue, once you start learning it, it just draws you in, and the time passes much faster than with other music. For two stretches of two weeks – when I just started learning it and later when I was about to start playing it – it was normal for me to practise 8 hours a day, which is something I'd never recommend. I don't remember that ever being the case with other music.

For the recording, you completed the final unfinished Contrapunctus XIV yourself. Can you explain how you approached that task?

There aren't actually that many ways to approach it: there is literally only one combination where each theme can start that can make all three themes work. One thing I do, though, is use the inverted versions of all the themes, because the miraculous thing is that it actually works! That's probably the biggest take-away from learning this piece and from writing this completion. It was not that difficult to do because everything fell into place. The themes and the counterpoint just make so much sense – and they work in any combination, and even in the retrograde [reversed] version. Bach didn't use that on this occasion, as he did in A Musical Offering, but who knows? Maybe if he'd lived longer he might have done that in Art of Fugue too.

(Photo © Dario Acosta)

You've completed the album with works by Bach's sons, as well as music from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. What guided that decision?

The Art of Fugue is too much music for one CD, but not enough for two, and I wanted to create a certain counterbalance. I thought about what to compare it with. Art of Fugue is lots of D minor, and is a great listening experience, but I wanted to show some other sides of Bach's music, and especially music by his sons. So many of his children were producing extremely well-written music. There's C.P.E. Bach, of course, but also fantastic pieces by Johann Christian Bach, Wilhelm Friedrich Bach, and then Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach as well. And then we have the Anna Magdalena Notebook. It's interesting because the score is very barebones and sparsely notated, which suggests there are a lot of things that were improvised based on it.

It's more a collection of works than a cycle, and I had to do only a selection and find my own order for them, but it's an extremely interesting exercise in general about how music was treated back then in terms of ornamentation – all the things that harpsichordists and other historical instrument performers customarily do, but which are not so much a tradition on the piano.

Famously, The Art of Fugue is written for unspecified instrumentation. How suited do you feel is to the piano? 

When I'd just started learning Art of Fugue, I visited a collection of harpsichords and early pianos and it was remarkable to try all of them. But it all works on the modern piano, even if you wouldn't do things exactly as you would on a harpsichord; it's dense polyphonic material so there are things that you could do on the harpsichord that would feel overdone on the piano. But, at the same time, there are organ recordings of Art of Fugue which have even less ornamentation than you would do on the piano, so I think the piano is a good balance: it can do the dynamic gradations of the clavichord, it can do the grand sonorities of an organ, and it can even imitate singing in a way.

What do you hope listeners – especially those coming to The Art of Fugue for the first time – will take away from the album?

A sense of Bach's incredible emotional insight and the way he creates emotion through his music. During his time, Bach was probably the one who pushed the boundary of how music spoke on a human level through all its complexity, and it's a miracle to have all that extremely complex material but never for the sake of it; there's always some kind of story, there's always a concept. 

"Bach: The Art of Life" is out now.

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