Monday, May 4, 2020

"Goldberg Variations / Variations": Revisiting Dan Tepfer revisiting J.S. Bach

Nine years ago, I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star a recording by the 2007 American Pianists
Dan Tepfer sits atop his study of "Goldberg Variations" and variations of his own,
Cole Porter Fellow Dan Tepfer titled "Goldberg Variations / Variations." The title's  forward slash and  repetition of "Variations" said succinctly what this recording was all about: The original Aria and 30 variations on it that came to be known by a student's name had each of those variations followed by Tepfer's improvised variation on what Bach wrote.

I very much disliked the idea and its execution, though I found a saving grace to the extent that Tepfer's idea (and maybe this actual recording) might be useful as a teaching tool. I wish I could find that 2011 review so I could learn just how wrong I was about the work's public viability. I must have been wrong, because "Goldberg Variations / Variations" was greeted with a chorus of praise. And it took a favored place in Tepfer's repertoire — a 2013 performance of it at the genre-busting showplace Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan brought kudos from Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times.

He called Tepfer's performance "riveting and inspired." I can sort of agree with that after listening to Sunday's account by Tepfer of his bold idea, livestreamed from his Brooklyn apartment. The pianist was to have been in Indianapolis yesterday afternoon under APA auspices to play "Goldberg Variations / Variations" at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I would have been there.

Why? Because the set is undeniably riveting. If you love Bach's masterwork, you will be on the edge of your seat waiting to learn, after each variation, just what Tepfer will make of it. That was true today, and so it was when I reacquainted myself with the CD last week after not having slipped it into the player since 2011. As for "inspired," well, sure it is: I can't imagine someone undertaking such a project and carrying it out time and again in a phlegmatic frame of mind.

Another irritation I can't get rid of: LP of "Four Organs"
Finally, for the listener, Tepfer's "Goldberg Variations /Variations" is at least a memorable experience. It's not one of those "meh" records you lightly discard when you're trying to downsize. At the same time, unfortunately, it is one of the most irritating recordings I own, right up there with Steve Reich's "Four Organs" and Kenneth Gaburo's "Lingua II: Maledetto." After today, I'll admit, the irritation receded somewhat. I'll keep all three recordings until they cart me out of here — they're just memorable, and that is a quality that sticks.

In the current case, I was listening Sunday for signs that Tepfer's background as a jazz pianist would bring fresh insights to J.S. Bach. They could be expected to show up in the pianist's improvisations as well as in his traversal of the original, I figured. I have often been struck by the wide gulf between the jazz and classical aesthetics, and the piano is the ideal instrument on which to observe it. I have known too few people who find both genres congenial. Tepfer clearly does, and the way he plays the Goldberg Variations displayed his classical chops and interpretive affinity well.

Once long ago, when using the men's restroom at a break from a Leon Fleisher masterclass at the University of Michigan, I was disheartened to read an anti-jazz scrawl on the wall, scorning the very presence of jazz instruction at a university. OK, so what? Restroom walls are the precursor of social-media trolling. But I suspect one side looking askance at the other may remain a general phenomenon in the public square.

Among music critics, the divide is certainly notable, with a few exceptions such as Mark Stryker,
Harold C. Schonberg, a formidable critic and piano expert, had no use for jazz.
formerly of the Detroit Free Press, and Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. Harold C. Schonberg, Tommasini's predecessor by a few critical generations at the Times, once told me and other young critics how an editor had assigned him to go to the Newport Jazz Festival, back when the Times lacked a jazz specialist. "I remember listening to a pianist named Erroll Garner; he was trying to play octaves," Schonberg said disdainfully. "Later I learned he was supposed to be a big deal. The next day the Times hired John Wilson ."

Schonberg just didn't like jazz, he said in informal conversation later. Knowing he had special knowledge of the piano, I asked if he was familiar with Art Tatum, thinking of the uncanny evenness of Tatum's runs and their precise insertion into the melodic line. Schonberg shrugged; he hadn't heard of Tatum. Later, in his admiring biography of Vladimir Horowitz, the esteemed critic mentioned the reclusive Russian going to a jazz club occasionally to admire Tatum's art.

Murray Perahia saluted jazz pianists' harmonic sense.
And the eminent master pianist Murray Perahia once gave an interview to an English journalist frankly admitting that jazz pianists are steeped in harmony to a degree many classical musicians are not. Perahia mentioned working with a violinist he chose not to name who wasn't aware what key the music was in during a passage it would have been useful to the partnership for the fiddler to know. A jazzman would have known, Perahia suggested pointedly.

So there is plenty respect to take into account. The Tepfer project has earned it from both sides. Furthermore, APA's  enduring advocacy of both jazz and classical piano is essential to its distinguished brand. Even with his habit of vocalizing, especially in his improvisations, Tepfer seems to salute both branches of his art, represented at their most extreme in vocal self-accompaniment by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould.

"I came at that music so tangentially," Tepfer admitted in last Sunday''s livestream chat with 2020 APA competition finalist Dominic Cheli. But, thanks to Tepfer's skill and study ("a project that took me over," he said), the tangent has made a mostly unerring line to the sacred circle of J.S. Bach. That's evident in how well Tepfer handles what Bach wrote. His tempos are varied and well-judged, he has a sure sense of how to apply color, the ornaments and rhythms are crisp, and the interpretations are as spirited as the improvisations that follow. He clearly wants to get pure Bach across, not just use it as a launching pad for Tepfer skyrockets.

Nonetheless, it is hard to sustain admiration for Bach's "argument" — the manner in which he orders his variations and the way they speak to one another — when it is regularly interrupted by spates of Tepfer. And I missed the repeats, though that would have made the recording (and any concert version) twice as long. Not marketable, not even artistically advisable — but still....

There is inevitably some unevenness in the quality of improvisation: What seemed yesterday like an adroitly used "walking bass" in the left hand of the second variation / variation sounds lead-footed and plodding on the recording.

But there are differences, too, that speak favorably to some of the excitement of jazz — "the sound of surprise," in Whitney Balliett's immortal phrase. Tepfer's take on the sixth variation in the recording has a sotto voce intimacy; on Sunday — wow!— his improvisation on the same variation featured tone clusters and more pedal than Tepfer's norm. The color contrast was exciting. I would judge either approach a success in context.

Here's a long coda of Beethovenesque proportions. I want to close by mentioning a few other ways this seasoned jazz pianist makes good use of his background. He catches the martial nature of Variation 9 by becoming more explicitly militaristic in his personal treatment, complete with suggestions of drum rolls. One hears the kind of "spread rhythm" in which pulse expands into  texture, the legacy of Elvin Jones that any number of today's "sons of Elvin" have mastered.

Variation 13  is modified in a manner hinted at propheticlly by Bach to approximate how a jazz pianist approaches ballads from the Great American Songbook. There's some significant foreshadowing of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which Tepfer explicitly references in the final improvisation, following Bach's quodlibet model of restricting to one main focus the practice of assembling snippets of well-known tunes, here a folk song titled "Kraut und Ruben" (cabbage and turnips). A modern use of this kind of medley enjoys restoration of its lighthearted spirit in P.D.Q. Bach's "Quodlibet for Small Orchestra."

But Tepfer's entire manner as he spins out his take on Variation 13 enters the reflective atmosphere jazz pianists create when they deal with such songs as "I Thought About You" or "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." I enjoyed also Tepfer's suggestion of bop phrasing here and there, an occasional use of "space" a la Miles Davis, and, in addressing the formidable challenge of Bach at his most astonishingly chromatic (Variation 25) a surefootedness about passing through key centers that seems to honor John Coltrane.

On the other hand, there were several improvisations in Sunday's performance where Tepfer seemed to be searching for direction, never quite wresting meaning out of the materials. One of those came near the end, in the Variation 27 Tepferization. But it was succeeded by a strong finish: Clanging bells being evoked in the Variation 28 improvisation, picking up on Bach's 32nd-note figures, and a deft, sprightly turn at boogie-woogie piano in the next improvisation, with Bach's Variation 29 coming in between and seeming a credible shoulder-to-shoulder partner. Finally there was in the Variation 30 improvisation a fitting prelude to the concluding reprise of the Aria. The pianist crafted a poignant, sidelong tribute to the Cole Porter of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with the first part of the title phrase repeated lingeringly and some inside-the-piano plucks decorating a high-register Tepfer farewell to his improvisations.

So, on balance, I got more out of my return visit to this project. It's still a somewhat irritating listening experience. The whole kit and caboodle may be worth more study by jazz and classical pianists than it can ever be recommended for listeners. The art is there, but the instructional heft of the project seems dominant in promising any longevity for it.

And it's likely I may play my "Goldberg Variations / Variations" CD a time or two more than I will ever put my LPs of "Four Organs" or "Maledetto" on the turntable. Some kinds of irritation are oddly more rewarding than others.

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