Tuesday, March 3, 2015

No beggaring Bach: Reflections on too many CDs, the Goldberg Variations, and a misused rhetorical cliche

Responding to a close relative suffering from a scanty CD collection is easy for me — especially when our musical tastes overlap considerably.

J.S. Bach wrote the Goldbergs
Decades of reviewing music have resulted in a home surplus of recordings in several formats. Tossing them out arbitrarily seems a mindless, even philistine, exercise. So whenever I cull my collection I have to spot-check every recording's contents: What's worth listening to again in my declining years — time being of the essence, even in retirement?

First target: duplicates of the same repertoire, all the better when the music is unlikely to come up on concert schedules. Even when brother Rick said he didn't even own a Beethoven's 5th on CD (which the Indianapolis Symphony will play next season), it was relatively easy to discard a David Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle account I'd always found hard to like. I won't go into the other nine that I just mailed to him, with one exception: Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Ah, perfect!  I owned seven versions of this masterpiece, including both of Glenn Gould's. Other LP versions were two by harspichordists: Anthony Newman (Columbia, 1971) and Trevor Pinnock (Archiv Production, 1980). Then there were three interpretations by pianists on compact disc: Samuel Bartos (Connoisseur Society), 1990), Robin Sutherland (D'Note Classics), and Minsoo Sohn (Honens, 2011).


Cover of Tepfer's oddly indispensable CD.
But what really made this decision fun was that I finally had an excuse to go back to a "Goldberg Variations" I hated when it came out in 2011: Dan Tepfer's "Goldberg Variations/Variations" (Sunnyside). Tepfer has a strong Indianapolis connection: He won the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz in 2007. The Premiere Series of the current competition had just ended last Saturday night. Tepfer's Bach experiment thus came readily to mind.

Some trepidation ensued, of course. I was resolved not to send my brother Tepfer's version, in which he appends an improvised variation of his own on each of Bach's 30, plus the Aria (the source of the whole set). It was still too much of a curiosity for me to jettison, I decided, no matter what I turned out to think of it now.

As I sifted selectively, comparisons brought to the surface my predilections about this piece. I decided I liked versions that repeat each half of each variation (and the aria) best. I didn't encounter the conventional manner of handling repeats (do the first half again, but not the second), but I wouldn't have liked that. And I had to respect an artist's prerogative to do the repeats in some variations, but not others; that was Pinnock's choice.

Still, to me Bach's genius is so manifest in this work that taking the repeats seems to confirm the excellence of each part. And, variation after variation, somehow the second half always "needed" to be repeated when the first half was; it was likely eavesdropping on a superior conversation in which you actually enjoy having each speaker detail his argument again, and reveling in the balance between the two.

Plus, it was fascinating to me to hear what the players favoring repeats did with them: There were the options of tasteful, vivifying ornamentation (Sohn); expressive variety, such as little hesitations or tempo adjustments the second time through (Sutherland); and very little emphasis on either of those choices (Pinnock). All seemed legitimate ways to go in the hands of an intelligent artist.

Glenn Gould about the time he burst onto the scene with his eccentric, captivating Bach.
So, which recording went to Rick?  The LPs were out of  the question, since he doesn't have a turntable. Plus, how could anyone get rid of Columbia's packaged reissue of Gould's 1955 and 1981 versions.  The later recording, famous for its mellowness in comparison with the one that set the classical world on its ear, seems mannered to me. Of course, this being Glenn Gould we're talking about, mannerism perfumes the stylistic atmosphere of the 1955 version, too. It's maddening what he does: A few variations too slow (a somnolent No. 25), others insanely fast (Nos. 17 and 26, for example), and no repeats. But of course it's a milestone in the history of recorded performance practice.

As must be clear by now, the Bartos — smart, sensitive but begging for repeats — went off to Rick. As for Dan Tepfer, he has the requisite skills and intelligence to deserve his own say with the Goldberg Variations. But I still think that bringing his jazz chops to bear after each variation should not have gone beyond the teaching studio or the master class. His improvisation on the Aria at the very end is lovely; that's all he should have released to the public. Many of Tepfer's variations ignore phrasing for the sake of emphasizing a rhythm, a melodic figure, or a texture. Interesting, but classroom stuff.

After the full-length Sunnyside release, lots of people felt the opposite (my review was on my Indianapolis Star blog, now inaccessible). They  thought "Goldberg Variations/ Variations" had much to impart to the music-loving public, that the Tepferization of Bach had stature and artistic integrity.

OK, I'll let it go; I'm not going to review the disc again here. I'd rather close by relating the Tepfer/Bach monstrosity to another pet peeve of mine: the widespread misuse of the expression "begging the question."

Let us suppose that I felt so strongly I was right about Tepfer's experiment that I was asked to respond to all the lauds "Goldberg Variations/ Variations" has received from critics. I might be inclined to argue that a lot of the praise was from jazz specialists inclined to process Tepfer's work as just a higher-plane version of what jazz musicians do to received material all the time.

Suppose I worked from a hypothesis that the kudos was spun by people not qualified to judge what Tepfer had done to a work the kudos-dispensers hardly knew, or didn't know at all? The kind of critic who would gush, as one blogger did: "Grab a good book, and put this album on and get lost in this marvelous disc"? Or the one who promised that "you don't realize when you listen to the original work and when you are listening to the improvised pieces"?

So I'd buttress my theory by citing laudatory listeners who hear no difference between Tepfer and Bach or who accompany their musical experience with reading (how good a book could it be if you were really enjoying the music?). What fun! Like  shooting fish in a barrel! And I would go on  to mention the doubtful bonafides of Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader, John Garatt of PopMatters, and Carlo Wolf of Jazz Times — all of them smitten with Tepfer/Bach.

Up to this point I would be raising the question, not begging it. Then Tepfer's defender might say: What about Anthony Tommasini, chief classical critic of the New York Times, who found a Tepfer performance of the work at the Manhattan hotspot Le Poisson Rouge "riveting and inspired...a brilliant performance...no stunt, but a fresh musical exploration"?  If I were stubborn, I would venture that Tommasini's judgment had been skewed by a bias toward welcoming new ways of approaching old music, perhaps unconsciously to exhibit the relevance of his "beat" at a time when even his employer has been questioning high-culture coverage.

Then, I would have crossed the line, especially if I went on to dismiss other well-qualified commentators. I could justly be accused of begging the question. Why? Because I had succumbed to a temptation frequently encountered in arguments we all get nudged into that don't break down prematurely into invective: assuming the very thing I was trying to prove.

If I am defending the notion that praise for Tepfer/Bach could only come from those unprepared for the experience and biased to be positive, thereby dismissing citation of any admirer of the release, it's obvious that I am no longer advancing an argument, but have already thrown commentators on Tepfer/Bach into two camps. I would have decided  those who don't like it are qualified to comment on it; those who like it are not. I would have begged the question.

But of course I wouldn't do that. I hope I shy away from adhering to any of my opinions so doggedly that I stray into begging the question.  Yet I love raising such questions. which is all most people mean when they speak of begging the question.

Meanwhile, may Dan Tepfer enjoy his success, and Rick his new cast-off CDs.