As the pandemic grinds on, virtually the entire arts world seems doomed to a saison manqué, with few performing companies planning much of anything before fall of 2021. There are happy exceptions, as this live recital given by the twenty-nine year old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov at Palm Beach’s Society of the Four Arts on December 13 proved to be. A members organization devoted to cultural pursuits, the Four Arts straddles enough of the line between private and public space that it can, within reasonable limits, present live music without running afoul of our undoubtedly well-meaning minders in and out of government. Despite its membership structure, it allows interested non-members to attend programs on a first-come, first-served basis if tickets do not sell out in advance.

Trifonov’s long-anticipated recital of works by J. S. Bach was announced as “full” some time before the concert, but this certainly did not translate into a hall filled to the rafters. With the audience restricted to one-third of capacity (masks de rigueur, including for the performer) and the actual turnout looking to be rather smaller, this was hardly the sell-out crowd Trifonov regularly commanded in better times. The experience was eerie. The partially filled rows of masked concertgoers seemed like something from the pages of a science fiction novel. Eyes darted back and forth, signaling alarm whenever another body was perceived to come too close. The intermission chatter dwelled on only one subject: the vaccine, which in these parts is soon to be administered to those over the age of sixty-five.

Trifonov is known for atypical programs, and even in this all-Bach afternoon there was a certain amount of caprice. Most of the concert was dedicated to The Art of Fugue (1751), BWV 1080, a collection of fourteen fugues and four canons. The Art of Fugue allowed an aging Bach to explore those forms just as they were falling out of fashion in the broader eighteenth-century turn toward homophonic melody. The series was left incomplete at Bach’s death; scholars still debate whether Bach died while attempting to finish it, or if he intentionally left “open ends” for subsequent composers to fill in. 

Trifonov’s program eschewed The Art of Fugue’s canons and presented the first eleven fugues in the opening half, while the final three fugues were reserved to open the second half. Building from four long notes outlining a D-minor triad, each fugue, or “Contrapunctus” becomes gradually more sophisticated. Separating the final three fugues into the second part makes some sense as Contrapuncti XII and XIII each contain instructive “Rectus” and “Inversus” sections (for comparison), while XIV is cleverly structured around a B-flat-A-C-B-natural combination, which spells “Bach” in German.

Yet no matter how it was arranged, The Art of the Fugue’s domination of the program felt more than a little pedantic. It is far from clear if Bach intended this music for concert performance, and after about seven or eight fugues in a row, one is tempted to think not. Trifonov’s virtuoso skill proved a saving grace, however. Since Bach included no specification for instrumentation, this leaves broad latitude as to how the music can be performed, and the interpreter can embellish in style and tempo at will (one thinks back to Glenn Gould’s famously speedy reading of the series). Trifonov’s lively playing was a wonder to behold.

Trifonov switched out the programmed Chaconne in D minor and replaced it with seven short excerpts from Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (1722 and 1725), named for the composer’s second wife. The precise excerpts were unfortunately not identified but, as a grab-bag of preludes, dances, and suites, the selections were lighter and more enjoyable than the tedium that came before.

The closing piece also offered some respite. An adaptation of a chorale from Bach’s 1723 cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (“Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life”), BWV 147, arranged in 1926 by the British pianist Myra Hess under the title Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, gently resounded like a lullaby for an enthusiastic but still very concerned audience confronting what hopefully will be the final stretch of the pandemic.

Palm Beach is moving full steam ahead with live music. The Society of the Four Arts plans to resume solo and small ensemble performances next month, as does the Palm Beach Chamber Arts Society, which intends to abandon its streamed format for live events at around the same time, and the Palm Beach Opera, which has enjoyed its pick of soloists to replace its scheduled season with an outdoor opera festival planned for February. If live music be the medicine for these strange times, play on.

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