Dan Tepfer – Goldberg Variations/Variations

Symphony Hall stage

The Steinway was back to front, its lid opened towards the Symphony Hall organ and an audience seated where the woodwinds, brass and percussion of the CBSO are more often found. The vast auditorium of this marvellous concert hall lay out there in low lighting, playing the novel role of backdrop.

It was the perfect way round for what we were to hear, because as well as being a fine solo piano recital the French/American pianist’s Goldberg Variations/Variations project does place its audience in the engine room, as it were, and asks it to consider the construction of the music and the workings of the musical mind. With Dan Tepfer as chief mechanic.

The pianist explained the project’s logic of interleaving Bach’s Aria and 30 variations with his own improvisations: a) the contrast of seemingly perfect composed by Bach in 1741 with imperfect – by definition – improvisations composed in the moment by Tepfer on 10-02-206; b) the fact that Bach was himself “a fearless improviser”; c) that, unlike most other classical themes and variations, the Goldberg is, as a set of variations keeping to the same harmonic progression of the opening and closing song, a dead ringer for a jazz standard.

I’m no judge of how well, from a classical point of view, Tepfer played the Bach, but a friend who knows a lot about such things gave his performance the thumbs up. It certainly sounded blissful to me, drawing attention to the pliability of the rhythms. Tepfer’s own variations were rich and varied, sometimes like deconstructions or reflections upon what we had just heard, sometimes stretched out of shape like a distorting mirror of the Bach, at times edgy, at others lyrical, some playful, some witty. Near the end there were a couple of swoony improvisations, one leaning towards a Somewhere Over The Rainbow, blues-tinged, heart-on-sleeve mood, the other placing slow-held, left-hand chords with a gospel air about them beneath a high, singing melody, sometimes trilling Baroque-like though with modern harmony, before it fell in a misty waterfall.

The risk is a feeling of disjunction, of interruption of flow, especially of the Bach. But we’re accustomed to that feeling; we live in the jump-cut era. And, though Tepfer’s improvisations more often contrasted with Bach’s compositions near the beginning, as the performance wove through the variations so the Tepfer seemed to move towards the Bach and the Bach towards the Tepfer. Like owner and dog, the longer they were together the more they started to look alike…

This could have just been happening in my ears and my head’s and heart’s response to the music, of course – that’s the kind of self-reflection that comes more easily when you are in the engine room rather than the auditorium.

So, Tepfer could have chosen to play the Goldberg Variations with a jazzy swing a la Loussier; he could have played the Bach as written and uninterrupted, followed by his own improvisations all together; he could have approached it like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, or repeating a print of Marilyn Monroe in different techinicolor hues. He did none of these; he did something much more interesting and thought-provoking.

Full marks to the man for following his own path, and full marks to Jazzlines for presenting it in this wholly appropriate manner.

  • For a classical reviewer’s take on this same concert go here

Categories: Live review

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