Talking Bach, jazz & the Goldbergs

Writer, pianist and lecturer Stuart Isacoff joined Lee Clifford to discuss Bach, jazz and the Goldberg Variations in advance of American Pianists Awards winner Dan Tepfer's performance of the piece with added improvisations (scheduled May 3).

Stuart Isacoff
Stuart Isacoff

LEE:

How are you this morning?

STUART:

Okay I'm alive!

LEE:

Hey you know one day at a time, right?

STUART:

Right.

LEE:

So yesterday we were talking about Bach, and I don't know if you had some ideas on how what you would like to touch upon but I think you said you're quite fond of the Goldbergs.

STUART:

Yes, I mean it's a beautiful thing. There's a whole legend that grew around the Goldbergs involving a royal personage who had insomnia and had a young keyboardist name Goldberg play for him through the night to help deal with the insomnia. This Goldberg character actually lived in the Bach household for a while and was taught by the Bach family, and so the piece was purportedly written to deal with the insomnia issue.

More on the origin story from 2021 American Pianists Awards finalist Dominic Cheli 

I think none of that is really true—I think it's all legend. But in any case, it's a great piece. It's a very interesting set of variations: 30 variations on an aria that begins and ends it.

What's especially interesting about the variations is that they're not based on a typical theme, but they're based on the baseline of the theme. That makes it somehow really appropriate for jazz because jazz musicians will often base their improvisations on a set of chords or implied harmonies and the baseline is what implies the harmonies. So, it seems to be a kind of a baroque version of jazz.

LEE:

That's interesting! I had heard a little bit about the legend and that the Goldberg character was allegedly 14 years old.

STUART:

Yeah, young kid which makes it all the more difficult to believe! It's really quite a difficult piece, and you have this youngster performing it. But, it's true that he did live in the Bach household for a while, so he had the best teachers in the world to work with.

LEE:

What makes it difficult to play?

STUART:

Well it's fairly complex at times. Bach didn't indicate tempos or things we are used to seeing in modern music notation, so we can't say for sure how fast some of this went. But modern interpreters have taken some of these variations and really rapid tempos and it makes it a little tricky.

Of the modern players, Rosalyn Tureck, who was known as the queen of Bach, made many pronouncements about how Bach should be played. In fact, she had a kind of a war going with Wanda Landowska, the great harpsichordist, over how to play Bach. Tureck and Landowska almost came to blows over it! Landowska finally said, “Look you play Bach your way, and I play Bach Bach’s way.”

Tureck has more than one recording of the of the Goldbergs, but I find them very unsatisfying because she plays it so slowly. I'm sure she believed that that was the correct way to do it. We have so many more choices to listen to today, and many of them are more satisfying.

LEE:

I know the late Gould recording is slow as well.

STUART:

Well, Glen Gould kicked off his career really with the recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955 or so, and it was a remarkable recording because the piece really was not a popular work to perform at the time. It was more of an academician’s work or something that interests scholars. It was dealt with in a very dry, pedantic way.

Gould suddenly came out with this recording that breathed so much fire and life into the work that he kind of astounded people. And his playing of that first recording is kaleidoscopic! It's just full of color and energy and craziness inside some moments. It's just brilliant. It's a work of genius.

Now he revisited it at the end of his life and played it much more slowly. Some people find a greater depth there; I'm still so in love with the first recording that it's my preference.

LEE:

So is the lack of notation the reason there are so many interpretations of how to play this?

STUART:

Well Bach is an amazing composer because he can be played on any instrument at any time any dynamic level--it hardly matters. It's still always Bach because it's all based on a genius sense of structure. Just about anything could be satisfying as a Bach interpretation. It could be you know a group of kazoos or violins or pianos.

By the way, Bach knew of the piano,--played the piano--and many people don't realize that. They assume that this thing was intended for harpsichord, and that’s how it should be done. That’s not true. Bach was very familiar with pianos (of course they were early pianos and closer to the harpsichord than to the modern instrument).

But the thing that the piano did that harpsichords can't do is this idea of nuance or dynamics. You know the harder you hit the key of the piano, the louder the sound, and that enables a level of expressiveness that harpsichords just could never achieve.

LEE: Right. Let’s get back to what you said earlier. I’m fascinated by this—that so many jazz musicians are drawn to Bach. You discussed the left hand driving the harmonies and the variations. What about the concept of theme and variation—was that somewhat new with this piece?

STUART: No, you have theme and variation I think all throughout music history. I don’t know—I’m sure there must be—but I don’t know of other extended works that are based solely on this idea of repeating bass as being the foundation of the structure. And it’s hard to recognize that it’s a set of variations because of the fact that we’re not used to listening to the baseline and thinking that the constant

Bach is attractive to jazz musicians for any number of ways: his approach of spending out melodies, notes, series of notes is what jazz musicians do. They look at a harmonic situation, and they create all kinds of melodies on the fly. Bach was a great improviser, by the way. He was brilliant improviser. Then also there's this rhythmic component that is kind of an endless motor running that's an aspect of baroque music that brings it close to a jazz sensibility. And then also Bach’s logic. I mean musically he creates all kinds of fascinating permutations of melodies. In some of his pieces he will have a melody going forward and backward and upside down all at the same time. So there is a symmetrical aspect to what he's doing.

Then he is incredibly inventive. So he will always have some moment where the music takes a left turn when you expected it to take a right turn and that makes for musical excitement. That's something that jazz musicians are always interested in capturing as well. There's a compatibility there.

LEE:

Interesting! So we have Dan Tepfer scheduled to perform his “Goldberg Variations Variations” on May 3. How would you recommend people prepare to listen to that experience?

STUART: 

I think the idea is to just to be as open as possible. Dan is going to be taking a lot of left turns when you expect a right turn. He is going to look at all the possibilities. Well of course he has the music memorized—that’s not an issue, it's already in his DNA—so he's going to be thinking about this unfolding baseline that repeats in various ways. And he's going to be trying to create as much as possible something new out of that material.

One way to prepare would be to listen to a standard recording of the work. There are a lot of great interpreters. You have people like András Schiff and Murray Perahia, Glenn Gould of course, Tuareck. Almost everybody at this point has recorded Goldberg Variations. Anyway, listening to them, you'll hear differences among the different players. That will set up your mind for grasping the idea that there are different approaches to this work. Of course, none of those will be as different as Dan’s approach will be, but just trying to stay open to the possibilities is a good thing.

LEE:

I want to take you up on this! Give me two that I should listen to.

STUART:

Well I can make it easy because you can go on YouTube and find these things. First you have to listen to the Gould—I mean that's required.

LEE:

The first recording?

STUART:

You could listen to the first, then you can listen to the second. And if you don't have that much time you can listen to a little of the first and then a little of the second and you get the idea right away.

Murray Perahia is fabulous, and Grigory Sokolov, the great Russian pianist and one of the greatest pianists on the planet also performed it. Then there were others like Peter Serkin who just passed away fairly recently did it as well. If you just search on YouTube you will spot some of the great piano names, and then take a little taste of each and see what they have to say about the work.

LEE:

That sounds fun!

STUART:

If you I think so, my friend David Dubal has a radio show where that's all that he does, comparing a little bit of a performance by one pianist with the same work performed by another pianist, and it turns into kind of a fascinating experience.

LEE:

Well very good Stuart, this is a lot of interesting material and some good homework for me too.

STUART:

Okay great! Glad to be of help.

LEE:

We really appreciate it. Hope you have a nice quarantine day!

STUART:

Okay I'm going to lock myself in.

LEE:

Me too!

STUART:

Alright thanks Lee. Bye.

 

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Dan Tepfer's Goldberg Variations Variations will be presented as a livestream on Facebook May 3 at 3:30pm ET. We are grateful to CHDouglas & Gray Wealth Management for its continued sponsorship of this concert in a new format.

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