There are plenty of other notable versions, including a great reading by Andras Schiff and a 2003 performance on harpsichord (on which Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations) by Pierre Hantaï. (Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett also recorded a harpsichord version in 1989, but few would call it one of the best renderings.) I'm not enough of an expert to issue an authoritative verdict on the new performance by 29-year-old jazz pianist Dan Tepfer—though I do think it's fantastic—but on his excellent new Goldberg Variations / Variations (Sunnyside) he delivers an ingenious adaptation, following each of Bach's 30 variations with a concise improvisation of his own.
Bach published the work in 1741 as part of a book of piano studies called Clavierübung, and a translation of its full title illuminates its rather technical origins: Keyboard Exercise, Consisting of an Aria With Diverse Variations, for a Harpsichord With Two Manuals. Of course, even if the Goldberg Variations hadn't become enduringly popular, it's still be clear even on a casual listen that they're much more than keyboard exercises. Tepfer plays the Bach score with total fidelity and precision, and in the press materials for the album he praises Gould:
But what is amazing about Gould is his sense of time—it's insanely good. That's something jazz musicians think very hard about—what good time is, what groove is, what swing is. Gould is rhythmically one of the most precise and rooted players I've ever heard. You can't listen to his recordings of Bach and not want to tap your foot. They're so dancing. And that's important in Bach. Not that it was dance music, but his forms emerged directly from dance music.
In his improvisations Tepfer is thoroughly modern, though he's soloing on the chord sequences and melodic material of a centuries-old piece. Of course, jazz history is rich with instances where a single set of chord changes forms the basis for countless new tunes, but Tepfer responds to much more than just the changes, engaging Bach with a rigorous ear for detail. It's easy to tell the difference between the originals and the improvisations, but they work together well—there's nothing jarring or weird when one ends and another begins. Tepfer responds to the most aggressive, rhythmically fleet variations in kind, while the slower material allows him to use open space and beautiful phrasing. I've spent weeks going back to this album, and it's provided renewable pleasures and fresh discoveries each time. Below you can check out one example—a Bach variation followed by one of Tepfer's improvisations on it.
Dan Tepfer, "Variation 20"
Dan Tepfer, "Improvisation 20"
photo: Vincent Soyez
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