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Bach invented. Now a pianist is trying to match him.
The pianist and composer Dan Tepfer performs at Dizzy's Club in New York, Sept. 9, 2015. With “Inventions/Reinventions,” Tepfer fills out Bach’s missing two-part inventions with daring free improvisations. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- "Of course Bach is a million times greater than me,” pianist Dan Tepfer said recently. “I can still have a conversation with him.”

That conversation is ongoing. While Tepfer, 39, is best known as a jazz artist, who has worked with giants like saxophonist Lee Konitz, he has also delved into Bach — with twists.

In “Goldberg Variations/Variations,” Tepfer performed that monumental keyboard work, but instead of repeating each variation, as Bach’s score indicates, he improvised his own responses. Last year, homebound and intrigued by the idea that Bach’s contrapuntal lines would work just as well inverted, he recorded himself playing the “Goldbergs” on a Yamaha Disklavier, a grand piano with a high-tech player-piano function. A computer program he devised — Tepfer also has an undergraduate degree in astrophysics — then played back each variation, but flipped.

On May 7 at Bargemusic, the recently reopened performance space docked near the Brooklyn Bridge, Tepfer offered his latest Bach project: “Inventions/Reinventions.” Bach wrote 15 two-part inventions as teaching pieces for young students, originally compiling them for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. The pieces, written in just two voices, one per hand, are not technically difficult. But within their limits Bach introduces beginning players to some sophisticated elements of music, including daring harmonic modulations.

One aspect of these works has long raised a simple question. Since in his “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Bach wrote paired preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, why did he not explore all those keys in the two-part inventions? Tepfer ascribes to the explanation that Bach wanted to focus beginners on only the “easiest keys” — that is, the ones with the fewest sharps or flats.

So in “Inventions/Reinventions,” Tepfer boldly — even audaciously — supplies those “missing” nine inventions in the form of his own free improvisations.

“Improvisation is what is dearest to my heart,” he said in an interview, “and has always felt so natural.”

When he was a student, Tepfer said, he “spent vastly more time just improvising stuff at home,” even when teachers told him not to. He added that the way he thinks about jazz may well have been the way Bach would have thought about improvising.

“And we know from the historical record that improvisation was essential to Bach,” Tepfer said. “He clearly excelled at it to a unique degree.”

Of course, for Tepfer to supply his own improvised versions of the missing Bach inventions takes some bravado.

“That tension is at the heart of any of these projects that I’ve done where I’ve kind of interacted with Bach and these totemic pieces,” he said. “But the only way these projects can come alive is if it feels like a true conversation, and in any good conversation people speak in their own voice.”

That his improvisations are indeed free — created with “no preconceptions going in,” as he put it — came through in the performance at Bargemusic, in part because his “reinventions” sounded nothing like those captured on a video that was made the second time he tried the program out: in 2019 in Paris, where he was born to American parents and studied at a division of the Paris Conservatory.

Following the sequence of pieces in Bach’s score, Tepfer begins with Invention No. 1 in C, a piece every elementary piano student learns, and goes right into the Invention No. 2 in C minor — probably the most musically complex of the 15, unfolding as an intricate canon and moving through distant realms of harmony. At Bargemusic, as in Paris, Tepfer played with transparent, articulate touch; a jazz musician’s feel for lithe, bouncy rhythms; and tastefully expressive lyrical freedom.

Bach didn’t write inventions in C-sharp major or minor, so Tepfer supplied them. In Paris, his free improvisation in C-sharp major opened with a quizzical motif — a quick note that leapt to a repeated tone and hesitated until that motif was echoed up and down the keyboard, becoming a hook for expanded passages of intersecting voices, wistful melodic stretches and some poignant episodes of dark, chromatic chords.

The equivalent improvisation at Bargemusic was more insistently rhythmic and spiky, driven by an inventionlike motif that popped up everywhere and led to beautiful flights of harmony and some restless, agitated episodes.

In Brooklyn, his improvisation in C-sharp minor was gently jazzy, with passages of jumpy riffs alternating with delicate filigree. In Paris, it was jazzy in a more assertive, punchy way, with a clipped three-note riff that shot downward one moment, then segued into fleeting passages that wanted to turn pensive but never gave in.

Some of the improvisations in Brooklyn had a searching, mellow quality, as if Bill Evans were meeting Debussy. Perhaps the occasion, a return to live music in an intimate setting with just 25 people in attendance, brought out Tepfer’s ruminative side as the performance continued and the improvisations turned impetuous, reflective, almost romantic.

“With the inventions, I’m not taking any material from Bach,” he said; instead, he tries to respond to the “concept” of the piece.

“I try to come up with a musical idea,” he said, “and it’s not something preplanned.”

That idea could be a short motif, like an intervallic figure. Then Tepfer wants to take this idea on a harmonic, fraught dramatic adventure, before finally getting the idea — the hero — safely home; he connects the inventions to ancient Greek rhetoric and drama.

“That’s the DNA of Bach’s inventions,” he said. The quality of a dramatic scenario came through in all of Tepfer’s improvisations.

In one sense, this conversation with Bach was a little unbalanced: Bach’s inventions mostly last a minute or two, while Tepfer’s improvisations tend to be five minutes or longer. Both in Paris and Brooklyn, the whole program lasted about 75 minutes. I could imagine another approach in which he tried, as a discipline, to constrict himself more to Bach’s time frame.

Yet it was hard not to be swept away by Tepfer’s vision and compelling realizations. With disarming seriousness and extraordinary musicianship, he is honoring Bach by going all out in creating a conversation with him that is true to both artists.

“We know from the historical record that Bach was very kind and respectful to his students,” Tepfer said. “So it’s perfectly OK to be fully yourself.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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