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With ‘The Art of Life,’ pianist Daniil Trifonov has created a Bach family portrait

Daniil Trifonov performed with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in September. He'll play a solo concert at Symphony Hall Nov. 14.Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times

One of the first major classical concerts to fall victim to COVID-19 back in March 2020 was a recital by the pianist Daniil Trifonov featuring Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.” Trifonov, at the time, was known chiefly for his seemingly effortless performances of demanding virtuoso repertoire, so it was tantalizing to wonder what he would make of Bach’s last, unfinished work, which carries an air of mystery and exists halfway between a piece to be performed and a treatise on counterpoint.

Trifonov was in Kansas City when the pandemic dominoes started to fall. He was about to begin warming up to play “The Art of Fugue” when that concert was canceled; the rest followed swiftly. He spent the first two months of the pandemic in the Dominican Republic, where his wife was born, before returning to their home outside New York City.


Trifonov was able to tape a performance of “The Art of Fugue” at Tanglewood during the summer, part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s BSO Now streaming series. A more permanent compensation for that lost engagement arrived recently with the release of “Bach: The Art of Life” (Deutsche Grammophon), a recording that sets “The Art of Fugue” in the context of works by Bach’s sons, Brahms’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor violin partita, and portions of the “Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook,” a collection of pieces the composer presented to his second wife. The result is a richly imaginative picture of the Bach family. Trifonov plays with clarity, a light touch, and a hint of impulsivity throughout. An occasional composer, he also completes the unfinished final entry of “The Art of Fugue.” (DG made a theatrical and rather silly promotional video about the process.)

Trifonov makes his return to Boston on Nov. 14, with a program of music by Prokofiev, Debussy, Szymanowski, and Brahms. He spoke to the Globe from Zürich about the pandemic, Bach, and why he loves fugues.


Q. How was the pandemic for you?

A. Well, some things were productive, because I could spend a bit more time with music, more than I normally would, and I was also able to concentrate on music that had nothing to do with upcoming projects. And also, I became a father, so I could also devote much more time to family matters — things like cooking I’ve spent much more time doing, which I usually don’t really do a lot.

Q. Why did you call your new Bach album “The Art of Life”? What does that phrase mean to you?

A. One of the things that occurred to me when I was learning “The Art of Fugue” is that despite its structural complexity and mathematical precision, there is also a strong emotional element. Parts of it seem almost contemplative. And it’s quite a late work, so there is a sense of reflection by the composer. And also, sometimes the music sounds almost personal — for example, when he introduces the theme with his own name. But also in some other moments as well.

Unfortunately, there are not enough surviving documents that can tell us enough about what kind of human being he was. And so I thought of bringing in that more personal element of Bach through the music of his sons, and from the Anna Magdalena notebook. So a lot of it is almost trying to psychologically understand the hints in the music itself. And along that route, I discovered a lot of wonderful music of his sons. Some of it I had heard before, especially from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, but then there were a lot of other works which I discovered for the first time. And then I basically made a mini-suite with some of my favorite works.


Q. What does the picture of the Bach family that emerges from this suite look like?

A. I think one of the most interesting takeaways for me from the notebook was how much music there is that does not necessarily sound like what we expect of Bach’s music. Perhaps that tells us of quite a variety of musical tastes that were of interest to them. And also, the music of his sons, a lot of it is very different, not only from their father, but also among themselves. They’re quite individual, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was probably the most individualistic in terms of having almost no influences. So you have a variety of musical directions.

Q. Why was “The Art of Fugue” the first Bach piece you tackled? Something like the first book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” would probably have been a more conventional choice.

A. Well, I love fugues in general. I’ve played some other Bach works before, but also a number of fugues from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. To me, the polyphony in fugues itself is very fascinating, With the recital program for Boston, there is a sonata by Szymanowski, Number 3, and in that sonata there is, towards the end, a very fast fugue that is quite unique in the way it’s written. It’s in a language of its own and it’s a very complex fugue, but it’s one of the most exciting parts of the sonata.


Q. I’m glad you mentioned your recital program. How do these four works — Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms,” Debussy’s “Pour le Piano,” Brahms’s F-minor Sonata, and the Szymanowski — fit together?

A. Actually, I once played this program without the Szymanowski, and then it was very early works of these three composers. Prokofiev was still a student when he wrote “Sarcasms,” and for Debussy, “Pour le Piano” is one of his earlier works for the instrument. So in a way, those were earlier examples of composers writing for piano. But already, despite being early in their lives, there is always a very well-established language. It’s also interesting to see how that would affect some of the choices they made for the instrument later.

But then I also wanted to include Szymanowski’s sonata, which I discovered some time ago in a recording by Sviatoslav Richter. I was very captivated by the music, so I wanted to learn it.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Nov. 14, 3 p.m. Tickets: $29-$105. 617-482-6661,

Interview was edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.


David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.