Playing Bach

I mistrust the current vogue for slicing and dicing the human personality into different kinds of intelligences, it smacks of the assembly line approach to humanity, the sickening triumph of industrial engineering as the way societies are ruled and run. Intelligence is a whole, seamless quality, with a shape that varies with each person; a little lumpier here, a little sharper there, a smooth, thin plane with this one. We lose perspective on actual facts and achievements if we laud this person with emotional intelligence, that person with some talent for spatial reasoning. It also devalues human talent. Not only is not every person equally intelligent, but some people are not intelligent at all. CEOs of corporations are supposed to be our betters in ability, yet how can we call anyone who follows the herd, or follows incredibly clichéd and banal business ‘theory,’ and drives their company into the ground, intelligent at all?

And if they, and anyone, are intelligent, then how can we comprehend Bach? As the title of an excellent book about him goes, he was the learned musician. One need know nothing of his biographical details to hear this in his music. His mastery of the complex and technically formidable compositional structure of fugue is an obvious intellectual achievement, celebrated in obviously intellectual ways that break down the music into some sort of mathematical puzzle. While that’s a valid way to appreciate it, I find the pronouncements that result about music being like math to be too easy, too dismissive of what music actually is, too quick to don the mantle of learning. Music is not mathematics, actually, music is physics. Mathematics is the language of physics, the way it is expressed from one person to another, and while that language can be used for music as well, it’s utility is limited.

Music is art. Composers and musicians craft that art out of notes (which are pitched and controlled sound waves). The math of Bach, and of fugue, is ultimately meaningless. A technically correct fugue can be expressively dull. Yet Bach’s are so lively, mysterious, rhythmically powerful and beautiful. And there is all the music that is just plainly beautiful, like the cantatas. Somehow, the oboe solo from Ich habe genug never seems to make its way into the mathematical/structural way of thinking. Yet what in Bach’s catalogue surpasses it?

Something does, but more on that later. The music has never really gone out of fashion, rare for a composer, and the ideas in it course like the Mississippi (quiet but overwhelmingly powerful), through Haydn, Mozart, Berlioz, Mahler, even Steve Reich, and thus the post-Minimalist generation. And musicians continue to play Bach for the beauty and fascination and challenge. Because another feature of Bach’s incomparable intelligence is that the music is full of so much fascinating beauty and so much profound material, yet has only the slightest instructions. The way the notes fit together offer so many possibilities, but a musician must bring real intelligence to the scores, must respond to the mesh of notes with real ideas. Bach exposes charlatans, especially technically accomplished ones, quickly and unmercifully.

What we end up with on records and in concerts is a lot of great playing and thinking, and a much smaller amount of really profound thinking and feeling, the kind of thing listening experience that becomes essential, something that you have to have around, for those moments when nothing else will do. This is why Glenn Gould is one of those transcendent artist, who everyone knows and everyone listens to. Critics bred in and raised on classical music can dismiss him for going against the grain, but the grain has no value. If there is anything in human experience that comes close to proving the existence of God, it is the very real spiritual ecstasy Gould is experiencing and conveying throughout his second recording of the Goldberg Variations. This is nothing like the clichéd spiritualism of Scriabin, it is the sense that if something so infinitely learned and beautiful as the Goldberg’s had come from the mind of a humble man, then surely man himself came from the hand of God.

It is going against the grain that seems essential in Bach, one must fight against him in a way so as to avoid being overwhelmed. He will win in the end, but a musician must face him and say something. That’s the quality that makes Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach so exceptional. Within the exacting limits of bar line and phrase, she fits in a richly expressive Romantic view of the music. And that’s what makes @Bach, a new recording from Evan Shinners, so stimulating and attractive. There’s the of-the-moment title and Shinners skinny-jeans-and-tie image, but underneath this mildly cheeky exterior is some seriously informed, seriously thought-through and seriously good Bach playing.

Shinners is playing the music on the piano, and he exaggerates what the piano can do, vis-a-vis music written for keyboards without the range and sustain of the modern instrument. In the B-flat Partita BWV 825, he does things guaranteed to put knickers in a twist, including playing the Sarabande like an extended fantasy, and moving the Menuetts through different octaves.  It’s not a gimmick, he’s making intelligent choices for how to apply improvisational ideas in the context of a clear, energetic reading of the music. This is true to Bach, his era and his legacy. The composer was arguably the finest improviser ever, and the concept of music notation and publication had not taken on the ossified notion of a “text” where every quaver and dot must be protected by guardians who love correctness and hate music. This living, breathing improvisatory spirit suffuses his performances of the Toccatas BWV 911 and 914. The balance of this concert recording is filled with a revery of the French Suite BWV 816 and a remarkable Concerto BWV 1052, the orchestral accompaniment arranged for a small ensemble of mixed strings, winds … and is that an accordion in there? Shinners plays this masterpiece with exuberance, irreverence and real seriousness. This is one hell of a debut, not only for the quality, but the ambition and attitude.

Shinners approach is just as much a part of the tradition of the music as Dinnerstein’s, as much as his style is different. The strength and centrality of Bach is so great, though, that not only does he withstand dismantling and reverse-engineering, but his lessons can be heard clearly in what might otherwise seem music from another dimension. I’m thinking here of a tremendous recent recording that I’ve been listening to often of late, the latest in the series of recordings of the unique composer Gloria CoatesString Quartets, one of the quietly essential parts of Naxos’ American Classics series.

Coates is like Galina Ustvolskaya, in that once she found her method, she stuck with it. Known primarily as a symphonist, her use of string glissandos as her fundamental musical material comes to its full fruition in the string quartet, where the four instruments spend long stretches sliding from one note to the next, at times in parallel, at others in opposition. While this may seem like a novelty, the craft and focus of her writing are deeply serious, and within the eerie, richly disturbing sound is a great deal of clear, lyrical expression. Her most recent String Quartet No. 9 adapts this technique via canon, and while her phrase belongs more the Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, her application is very much in the manner of Bach, especially as she develops the material in the second movement. Bach’s methods are even more apparent in the solo Violin Sonata, the opening Prelude rocking back and forth between moments of  Bach and Bartok solo violin ideas. She makes Bach sound new, and he gives her history.

You could say the composer has that effect on all who practice his music. Or, that’s as it should be, and where Bach playing is bad, the musician is revealed as ungrounded and outside of time in some static, desolate place. It’s there, or not, in the mind and the hands. The fundamental proving ground seems to be the Goldbergs. The Art of Fugue is Bach’s valedictory piece, regarded as something that needs to be solved more than played, but it’s the Goldberg’s that are the ne plus ultra of Bach’s art.

It’s because of their form and style. While fugue is technically demanding, a composer can write a successful fugue — one that follows all the rules — while still not making a necessarily good piece of music. To write a successful set of variations means necessarily writing a good piece of music — the form demands the composer explore their interior landscape and resources and produce new, freely formed and constantly interesting things to say about their own mateiral — and the Goldbergs are great. The opening Aria is Bach’s most beautiful melody, the thirty variations that follow a journey through the possibilities of the integrated soul of intellect and expression.

There are exceptional recordings of it on harpsichord and piano, a beautiful string arrangement by Dimitri Sitkovetsky and a newer, jewel-like one by Richard Boothby for his viol ensemble, Fretwork. There is also a new jazz exploration of Bach, through the Goldbergs, by pianist Dan Tepfer, Goldberg Variations/Variations, where Tepfer inserts his own improvisations on Bach’s material throughout the piece.

Bach has met jazz before, most notably through the jazz fugues of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and most famously by the groovy Claude Bolling records. Tepfer is doing something different, although there is an antecedent, Uri Caine’s kaleidoscopic, exhausting The Goldberg Variations, where Caine takes apart and recontextualizes the music from two and a half hours. There are moments of real wit and insight, but it’s scattershot, maddening, incoherent and often shallow. And way too long.

Caine and Tepfer both start with, and in, Bach, playing the Aria straight. Caine uses a harpsichord, and seems to think that the proper way to approach Bach is as stiffly as possible, which is totally wrong. Tepfer plays Bach as well as I have ever heard, the first dozen bars of the Aria are on par with greats like Gould, Perahia and Dinnerstein; lyrical, rhythmically secure yet flexible, with a sumptuous, graceful beauty in the phrasing. A jazzy sense of rubato creeps in, however, and I felt an equally creeping sense of dread that this would be an album of ‘jazz’ Bach.

It’s something very different, though. Tepfer proceeds through a statement of each of Bach’s variations, then a pithy improvisation of his own based on that variation. Again, his Bach playing throughout is as fine as imaginable, with supple technique and deep understanding of the music. What makes this record the finest of 2011, across all genres, and one of the greatest discs I know, is the incredible musical, intellectual and emotional intelligence of his improvisations. Tepfer takes a small, identifiable element from a variation and spins it into his own short piece of brilliance — and the improvisations are brilliant, exploring and constructing themselves simultaneously. He manages to go far afield  from both Bach and his own idea, yet bring it all back to a succinct final moment with such logic and humanity that I can only compare it to the writing of Murray Kempton or Primo Levi.

This is a great musical achievement, exploring the simultaneity of time and content that only music can manage. Bach and Tepfer become integrated across epochs, concepts and styles, and the rigorous way the pianist keeps himself connected to Bach — and while the connection may become exceedingly fine, it is always present — is the kind of dialogue across history that creates new music. The journey of the two musics together is also one of parallel movement towards emotional tension and resolution. Especially from his Improvisation 10/Fuguelike on, Tepfer has a larger shape he’s building. The culmination is in the Variations/Improvisations 25 and 26, starting with Bach’s intensely interior, hesitant music which seems to be examining its doubts about itself, to which Tepfer responds with an equally desolate ballad, then the vivacious return to light and life, out of which Tepfer builds an incredibly powerful, joyfully roiling anthem. It’s less than ten minutes total, and the greatest minutes of music I’ve heard this year.

Utterly exhilarating, impossible to praise too highly, this is something few would dare and even fewer would accomplish. Tepfer’s Goldberg Variations/Variations belongs in every Bach and jazz lovers library. And that of every music lover.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • OK! first of all, GREAT review. Love the whole article. Read it three times.
    Second of ALL, for the readers who read this, listen: Shinners is SO MUCH sicker than Tepfer and Dinnerstein. Granted they all do something different, the difference is that Gould is the only one who is Dead, and of the living ones, Shinners is by FAR the best, and the most entertaining and forward thinking Bach show. Shinners can hardly be classified as Jazz or Classical, and if you really have to compare them all, put Gould and Shinners on the same level.
    But all in all, thanks for this great article!

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