Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian, is a versatile pianist. He plays Romantic concertos, of course. He plays the Russian repertory, of course. But he plays nearly everything else as well. That includes Haydn sonatas and Modernist pieces. Also, he composes, adding to his completeness as a musician.

So it came as no surprise that he played an all-Bach recital. The recital took place at Alice Tully Hall, under the auspices of Great Performers and the New York Philharmonic, jointly. The program consisted of three works: one of moderate length; the next quite long; and the third very short.

Trifonov began with the famous Chaconne in D minor, which ends the relevant partita for violin. He played it in the transcription by Brahms—for the left hand alone. This has been of great use for those with an injured right hand but a working left: I think of two great Americans, Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, immediately. But those with two working hands like to have a go at it too.

I have occasionally mused, in print: When pianists record the Brahms-transcribed Chaconne—and no one is looking—do they cheat and bring the right hand in? I doubt it. In any event, such cheating is impossible in front of an audience.

The pianist Daniil Trifonov. Photo: Chris Lee.

Trifonov attacked the piece with a great sense of purpose. His concentration was close to absolute. He pedaled lightly, which was both interesting and daring. (The pedal can paper over mistakes, so to speak.) He proved a fine singer with his left thumb—the digit that bears the burden of melody, or has the privilege of melody. Trifonov sometimes gripped the outer edge of the piano with his right hand, for balance.

He moved directly into the next piece, without pausing. He has the habit of doing this during his recitals. I think it’s silly—for one thing, the public often doesn’t know what it is listening to—but maybe he will drop it someday. (I am tempted to say “outgrow it.”)

What he played was The Art of the Fugue, that fascinating project in which Bach was engaged for the last ten years of his life. The composer did not finish it. The work—or “project,” as I’ve called it—is in D minor. So, given the Chaconne, there was a lot of D minor on this evening in New York. Maybe an hour and a half of it.

Trifonov convinced me that The Art of the Fugue does indeed “work,” in performance.

I have a question for you: Would Bach be shocked that, in 2020, someone was playing The Art of the Fugue in performance, in front of an audience? As though it were a partita (for example)? I would like to know. Another question, obviously related: Is The Art of the Fugue a piece to be performed or more like an intellectual exploration, to be studied, especially by composers? I have always been fifty-fifty on this question. But, on this night, Trifonov convinced me that The Art of the Fugue does indeed “work,” in performance.

He played his heart out—and his brain out. His concentration never broke, which made it easier for your concentration, in the audience, not to break. Trifonov shares a quality with his fellow pianist Igor Levit: they play as though it were the most important thing in the world. Trifonov attended to each voice, making these voices stand out. (In my view, he sometimes did this to a fault.) His playing was not immaculate, but this only proved we were listening to something live, and human. Each fugue or canon was distinct. I mean that each had its own character, which kept the work overall from being monotonous.

There is a world of music in The Art of the Fugue. Bach seems to encompass all the music that came before him, all the music of his own time, and the music that would come after, too. The Art of the Fugue can seem eerily futuristic.

I have spoken of monotony, which is something to avoid. The Art of the Fugue takes an hour and twenty minutes, give or take, to perform. Trifonov took an intermission in the middle of the work, or slightly past the halfway mark. When he resumed, it was like he never left. He immediately reentered the world of the work, and this enabled the audience to do the same. Let me say that he played the music as music. That is, the music was not just an intellectual exercise—an intellectual exercise to beat all intellectual exercises. It had emotion.

Note, too, that Trifonov played the work from memory. I am not one to be impressed by memorization. This comes naturally to some people, unnaturally to others. But to memorize The Art of the Fugue—with its subtle complexities, and its not-quite-samenesses—is a feat.

When it was over, Trifonov went straight into the last piece on the program, not pausing a beat. There was audible displeasure in the audience. I did not blame them. They wanted release, they wanted a few moments of wonder, they wanted to recover, and they wanted to applaud. To deny them this was practically perverse.

Daniil Trifonov at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Chris Lee.

Anyway, the final piece was not in D minor but in G major, something very different. And it was an encore, really: Trifonov had put the encore on the program. He played Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, in Myra Hess’s famous and treasured transcription. (She is not the only one to have transcribed “Jesu, Joy,” as she called it: another pianist of the same era, Wilhelm Kempff, did so also.)

Trifonov gave the audience three encore encores, if you will—unprinted ones. And they were by sons of Bach: Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel. The piece by cpe was a rondo in C minor—and it was funny, in Trifonov’s hands. Not just mildly amusing, but outright funny. How often do you hear this in music? Trifonov ended a recital of gravity, profundity, and beauty on a neatly lighthearted note.

The hissers meant to cause their own disruption.

I would like to end this discussion on a censorious note: Once or twice during The Art of the Fugue, a cellphone went off. This happens—it’s unfortunate, but it happens in an audience of a thousand or so. Some audience members felt it necessary to hiss—to hiss at the culprits. This was ten times more disruptive and distasteful than the phones, of course. Also, the people whose phones went off did not mean to cause a disruption; they were surely mortified. The hissers meant to cause their own disruption. They just can’t deny themselves the moral satisfaction of their hissing—which makes me almost want to hiss.

In Carnegie Hall, a trio played a trio of concerts, all-Beethoven. It was a trio of starry names, especially that of the cellist: Yo-Yo Ma. The other players were Emanuel Ax, the pianist, and Leonidas Kavakos, the violinist (who, on other nights, is a conductor). Sometimes chamber ensembles composed of big names—of star soloists—flop. You’re better off with ensembles that make their living that way—as chamber ensembles. But sometimes they succeed, impressively.

The Ax–Kavakos–Ma Trio—or should those names be in a different order?—was marking the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The trio was also marking the centennial of Isaac Stern’s birth. The late violinist was instrumental (no pun intended) in saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in 1960. The main venue within the building—a venue that most of us know as “Carnegie Hall”—is officially “Isaac Stern Auditorium.”

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma. Photo: Jennifer Taylor.

In a program note, Emanuel Ax recalled 1970, the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth. Stern, the pianist Eugene Istomin, and the cellist Leonard Rose played a series of Beethoven chamber concerts at Carnegie Hall. Ax, a Juilliard student, attended. Later, he himself played chamber music with Stern, and so did Ma.

I attended the second of this season’s three concerts. And it began with a sonata for cello and piano: the one in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2. It is not very often heard. Most striking was the quality of sound: the cellist’s, yes, but the pianist’s, too. Ma owns one of the most beautiful string sounds in the music business. This has been true for—what, forty years now? As for Ax, he was rich, rounded, and seamless. A number of years ago, I dubbed another American pianist, Richard Goode, “Mr. Smooth.” There were never any lumps in his porridge. The nickname came to mind as I listened to Mr. Ax.

I also had this thought: Would these players be better off in a smaller hall? Would the music as well? How about Zankel Hall, the chamber venue downstairs at Carnegie, or, better yet, Weill Recital Hall, upstairs? Yes, but if you have Yo-Yo Ma, it would be hard to pass up putting almost 3,000 fannies in the seats.

After the sonata in G minor came a sonata in A major—that for violin and piano, Op. 30, No. 1. Leonidas Kavakos is no slouch in the sound department himself. At different spots in this sonata (a masterpiece), I would have liked him to sing out more. Some of the music-making was too inward, or too intimate, for its own good. It bordered on the mousy.

Leonidas Kavakos and Emanuel Ax. Photo: Jennifer Taylor.

Finally, all three musicians came together for the Piano Trio in E flat, Op. 70, No. 2. They performed it at a high level—with intelligence and cohesion. They gave their audience one encore, and it was not by Beethoven. Should you depart from your composer on a one-composer evening? After all, Daniil Trifonov stuck with Bach (if in name only). The trio played Brahms: the slow, or slowish, movement of his Piano Trio No. 2 in C, Op. 87. This is an exceptionally beautiful stretch of music, and the three in Carnegie Hall did it justice.

A week later, Carnegie Hall suspended its concerts, as everyone else did.

So what did we have? Livestreams. At first—for three or four days—we had livestreams of concerts that had long been on the calendar. The audiences stayed home, but the musicians got together to give the concerts. This was before getting together—even in small groups—was a no-no.

The first livestreamed concert to come to my attention was an afternoon with nyfos: the New York Festival of Song. This concert was livestreamed from the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, in Katonah, New York. Like nyfos concerts in general, it was presided over by Steven Blier, an artistic director of the group. Publicity materials describe him as “pianist,” “host,” and “raconteur.” He is good at all those functions.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m not a big one for talking during concerts—for “hosted” concerts, or musicological evenings (or afternoons). I think of a radio slogan in Detroit, when I was growing up: “Less talk, more rock.” But this is a matter of taste, of course.

One thing I wince at, where nyfos is concerned, is a certain wink-wink sexiness, or would-be sexiness. A cool-kid stance toward matters sexual. “. . . private compulsions and obsessions that we usually try to keep under wraps. . . . things you might not want your parents to know about.” Oh là là. People always think that they discovered sex, that no one before them ever knew a thing about it.

Forget my carping, though. About the sincerity of Steven Blier and nyfos, and their love of music, and their determination to perpetuate song, there can be no quarrel.

This afternoon’s concert was headed “The Art of Pleasure.” The pleasures included “Oceanside in the Summer,” “Sleep,” “Romance,” and so on. The final category was “Peace.” Doing the singing were two women and two men, described as “emerging artists” and “rising stars.” Their performances were uneven in quality, as can be expected in a concert of this kind.

One of the best titles in recent times is Craigslistlieder. The work is a song-cycle written in 2006 by Gabriel Kahane (son of Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist and conductor). nyfos presented a slice of it, about a person seeking a roommate. The place is desirable and the rent is cheap—but there is a catch. “I have a compulsion,” the roommate-seeker sings, “to put ice cubes down people’s shirts.”

The song is both stately—even proper, somehow—and sensual.

I was especially pleased to see “Aimons-nous,” by Saint-Saëns, on the program. It is one of my favorite songs, of any type, and is rarely performed, for some reason. Deborah Voigt once sang it in recital. Saint-Saëns wrote the song in 1892, setting a poem by Théodore de Banville: “Aimons-nous et dormons/ Sans songer au reste du monde!” I would describe the song as neo-Baroque-ish. It ought to have a steady pulse, in my opinion, and it ought to bewitch. The song is both stately—even proper, somehow—and sensual. This is a considerable achievement. “Aimons-nous” is a cousin, I would say, of “A Chloris,” by Reynaldo Hahn, written about twenty years later.

The nyfos concert ended with a hymn: “How Can I Keep from Singing?” in an arrangement by David Krane, a Broadway artist. This beloved old number was composed by Robert Lowry, who also wrote “At the River,” whose fame was widened by Aaron Copland, who arranged it—and by Marilyn Horne, who made it a signature song. It was good to hear an old friend—“How Can I Keep from Singing?”—in whatever garb.

Right after the nyfos livestream, there was another one—from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. On this particular program were three composers: Dohnányi, Bartók, and Tchaikovsky, in that order. A serenade, a sonata, and a sextet.

Ernst von Dohnányi wrote his Serenade in C, for string trio, in 1902, when he was twenty-five. Tchaikovsky had written his Serenade in C, for string orchestra, in 1880. It was soon to be world-famous. The Dohnányi is a wonderful and substantial work, in five movements. They have Italian markings: “Marcia,” “Romanza,” “Scherzo,” “Tema con variazioni,” and “Rondo.” Dohnányi’s serenade is laced with intelligence and beauty. Why don’t we hear it more? The reason, I think, is that it is for string trio. How often do we hear one of those, in anything?

The Chamber Music Society presented Erin Keefe (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), and Colin Carr (cello). They were utterly professional, to use a word you normally don’t see in music criticism. They adhered to very high standards. Earlier, I mentioned that Yo-Yo Ma owns one of the most beautiful string sounds in the business. So does Paul Neubauer—who, if he played the violin or cello, rather than the viola, might be on posters.

For the past generation or two, if people have known a Dohnányi, it has tended to be Christoph, the conductor (and the composer’s grandson). How about in the future? Which Dohnányi will be better known—the conductor, through his recordings, or the composer, through his pieces? Hard to say, I’m afraid.

Bartók’s sonata has both elegance and savagery.

Bartók wrote his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in 1937. I last heard it played by Yuja Wang and percussion friends at the Salzburg Festival. Who was the other pianist? No one: Wang & Co. were using an arrangement requiring just one piano. cms had two pianists on hand, as Bartók prescribed, and they were Alessio Bax, from Italy, and Lucille Chung, from Montreal. They often play together, and are married to each other. The percussionists on hand were Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum (not married to each other, to my knowledge). Bartók’s sonata has both elegance and savagery. In their performance, these four emphasized the elegant, lyrical, and nimble, rather than the rougher side of things.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor, known as “Souvenir de Florence.” Don’t let that sweet, airy nickname fool you: it is a major work, at symphonic length. In the second movement, the violinist Cho-Liang Lin sang beautifully. This music has Italy written all over it. The next movement is Russian, no matter what the piece is called. Paul Neubauer sang beautifully there.

Overall, you want this work played with taste and gusto (and accuracy). The cms six did. They were never dull, not for a second. This may seem like a low bar, but it is actually quite high. And I think of Liszt, who said, “The cardinal sin of performance is dullness.”

The Miller Theatre at Columbia University livestreamed an all-Bach concert, led by Simone Dinnerstein, the pianist. (She was a favorite of William F. Buckley, Jr.) There were keyboard pieces, a cantata, and more. I have my criticisms—anyone would—but how satisfying to hear Bach, especially in a troubled time. After the concert was over, the musicians clapped for one another (in lieu of an audience) and hugged one another (tentatively). Then they turned to the cameras, waving goodbye. May we all be back in the seats before we know it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 56
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