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.
Trifonov elided the end of the Chaconne with the start of the liturgy: Bach’s “Art of Fugue” (BWV 1080). The effect was like dogged observance suddenly yielding a glimpse of the divine. The 14 expansive, intricate fugues of Bach’s final contrapuntal testament (Trifonov omitted the collection’s four canons) were displays of touch. You could follow his body language: Trifonov, straight-backed, collecting the notes into deep, organ-like color; Trifonov, hunched over the keyboard, teasing apart contrapuntal lines with zealous dexterity.
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.”
Trifonov offered his own completion of the final, unfinished fugue, marrying Bach’s abstractions to unabashed pianistic prowess. Out of its echo came Myra Hess’s transcription of Bach’s setting of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” measured and velvety, stretched into grace.
Encores were the musical equivalent of post-service coffee and doughnuts: charmers by Bach’s sons Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel — the latter’s C-minor Rondo (Wq. 59/4) especially mischievous, Trifonov still tapping out the final arpeggio even as he stood up to bow.
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.