I’m not accusing Maverick Concerts of false advertising, in the billing of pianist Dan Tepfer’s concert on Saturday, Sept. 7. It was listed as part of the “Jazz at the Maverick” series. Tepfer is known as a jazz pianist, and he did improvise his own variations on Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. But this concert fell as squarely between two genres of music as any I’ve ever heard.
Tepfer did play all of the “Goldberg” Variations, as written. In general, he played them quite well. There were enough memory slips (which, being a skilled improviser, he covered very well) and other shaky moments to suggest that Tepfer is not a full time classical pianist. But even without his own improvisations, I would rather have heard Tepfer’s Bach than, for example, the awful exaggerations of Simone Dinnerstein. He played Bach with clarity and style and obviously enough technique to play the often-difficult music.
In between each of Bach’s variations, Tepfer improvised his own. I am not often fond
of jazzed-up Bach, which usually seems to trivialize the music. The famous Jacques Loussier Trio’s Bach recordings usually strike me that way. But Tepfer takes the music very seriously, and his improvisations often succeeded as interesting takes on Bach’s musical ideas. His improvising style did not sound like pure jazz to me, but rather an alternation and sometimes an amalgam of jazz, Baroque, and contemporary classical styles. If a musician like Frederic Rzewski had played this concert, presenters would certainly have considered it a classical concert.
We’ll never know what a performance of this music by Bach, or by Goldberg (the student he wrote it for), would have sounded like. But from what we know of Baroque performance practice, we can be reasonably sure that any Baroque performer would have contributed improvised variations on any repeated music, including these pieces. I wonder if even Tepfer realizes how close to proper Baroque practice he comes. And if he ever decided to do all his improvisations in Baroque style, he would be totally authentic.
That’s not necessary, though. I enjoyed hearing Tepfer’s musical mind and adept fingers go to work on the “Goldberg” Variations. I know it would be different, but I’d love to hear him do it again.