If music has a Bible, it’s most likely the collected works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Through a combination of deep historical understanding and an unfettered imagination, the 18th-century German crystallized the laws of harmony and counterpoint, then used them in such an expansive way that his compositions still sound timeless.
So messing with those works would be heretical, right? Not for Dan Tepfer, whose improvised take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations will be heard on the opening night of Early Music Vancouver’s inaugural Bach Festival next week. Bach himself was a noted improviser, he says, although we can only imagine what his spontaneous creations must have sounded like in the coffeehouses of Leipzig and the palaces of Potsdam.
“We don’t have much about his improvising,” Tepfer allows, on the line from his home on a rainy New York City night. “We have little anecdotes, like how at the end of his life one of his sons was the court musician of Frederick the Great, and Bach was invited there. And because Frederick was this prankster who basically liked to annoy people, he gave Bach this incredibly thorny piece—this incredibly chromatic and strange piece, which later became named ‘The Royal Theme’, and asked him to improvise a fugue in three voices based on it. Bach apparently executed it perfectly, even though he’d never seen the theme before. But then, of course, Frederick the Great asked him to improvise a fugue in five voices, and Bach declined—although that’s why he wrote The Musical Offering, as a way of getting back at Frederick and saying ‘Look at everything I was able to do with your theme.’
“But, you know, we really don’t know much about his improvising except these secondhand accounts that say that he was incredible,” Tepfer adds.
The 34-year-old musician is no slouch himself, his virtuosity confirmed by his current gig as saxophone legend Lee Konitz’s pianist of choice. As for his ability to navigate both jazz and classical music at an extremely high level, Tepfer partially attributes it to growing up bilingual in both Paris and New York. Even so, just performing the Goldberg Variations, let alone improvising on Bach’s most famous work, is a true test of his capabilities.
“The chief difficulty of the Goldberg is that they’re incredibly exposed,” he says. “There’s absolutely no place to hide at any time. Every note counts. You can’t skate over any passages; everything needs to be just right. And at the same time, it’s a real feat of endurance. It’s a very long piece, and every one of the variations presents its own challenges.
“There are the virtuosic variations, which really stretch the possibilities of keyboard-playing—especially because they were written for double-manual harpsichord, so when you play them on piano you have to contend with your fingers kind of running unto each other, because you’re only playing on one keyboard, instead of two. So there’s that whole physical, virtuosic aspect,” he continues. “And then, for example, in the Canon there’s a very serious data-processing aspect, for lack of a better word, because to play this music well you have to keep track of three distinct voices in your head, and make them come out in a musical way. That requires a lot of concentration, and a lot of inner silence, as I like to say. To find that inner silence and that inner voice when you’re on a big stage, in front of a lot of people, can be a real challenge—especially when you’re 65 minutes into a pretty intense concert.”
On the improvising side, Tepfer’s task is complicated by the fact that all of Bach’s 30 variations are based on the same harmonic progression. In contrast, jazz improvisers have dozens, if not hundreds, of standard tunes, each with its own chord sequence, to work with. Avoiding repetition is a challenge, he admits, but it’s one he clearly relishes.
“I do my best work when I feel challenged, when I feel something I’m doing is really difficult,” he says. “It’s certainly a way of keeping myself on edge—and I take comfort in knowing that playing the Goldberg in concert is also a total ass-kicker for the top classical pianists and harpsichordists. It’s scary for pretty much everybody, as far as I can tell.”
Dan Tepfer plays Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday (August 2) at the Vancouver Bach Festival, in collaboration with Vancouver Coastal Jazz. Coastal Jazz, in association with Early Music Vancouver, also presents the Dan Tepfer Trio with Carmen Rothwell on bass and Ted Poor on drums at Frankie’s Jazz Club (765 Beatty Street) on August 4.