Dan Tepfer hasn’t featured on these pages before, which is an omission we’re keen to correct. Tepfer is a fascinating mix of jazz pianist, composer and innovator (both musically and in the literal sense of creating useful new apps). More than that, he’s an exceptional musician, equally able to climb the highest peaks of classical music and to improvise with extraordinary fluidity and grace, as he proved back in 2011 with Goldberg Variations/Variations, an album that saw him not only perform one of the hardest works in the classical canon but intersperse his own fascinating improvised variations in between Johann Sebastian Bach‘s originals, a project that references Bach’s own talent as an improviser and that was reviewed by the New York Times as “riveting and inspired”.
Inventions/Reinventions is in many ways a sequel to the Goldberg project in that it also combines a discreet collection of J.S. Bach’s music with Tepfer’s own improvised responses. The format is slightly different, as Bach composed Inventions in only 15 of the 24 possible major and minor keys, omitting D♭ major and minor, E♭ minor, G♭ major and minor, A♭ major and minor, B♭ minor and B major, absences that Tepfer has filled. The Inventions are a core part of the pedagogical repertoire for classical pianists in training, and so for some listeners the original Inventions will be familiar ground and only Tepfer’s interpolations will be virgin territory. Familiarity can actually be a disadvantage for the performer because listeners may decide they prefer another interpretation, but Tepfer is an assured performer and the original Inventions come across really well, managing the delicate balancing act of being being historically informed without losing their spark.
As in Bach’s original publication, the pieces are performed in ascending order with major first, then minor, which means that after we’ve heard the Inventions in C major and C minor, Tapfer’s first piece is “Improvised Invention in D♭ major”, which opens with a gorgeous melody employing a motif transformed multiple times. The harmony becomes jazzier as the piece progresses but no matter how far the music travels, it always feels close to the wonderful opening material. The closing sequence of chords is particularly exquisite. The next piece, “Improvised Invention in D♭ minor” is livelier and when the piece modulates into the major the opening melody is joyful, albeit briefly. When we return to Bach’s originals with “Invention in D major” we realise how far we have travelled harmonically in the improvised inventions (the absence of sustain pedal heightens the contrast further). That being said, there’s a clear continuity between the originals and Tepfer’s work for counterpoint is crucial to both: the “Improvised Invention in G♭ major” is one of the clearest example of that, with the joyful opening melody repeated between the two hands, and then transformed repeatedly through the piece, skipping gleefully through the keys, occasionally taking a darker turn.
All in all the improvisations are inspired contemporary reflections on the originals, and one suspects that Bach himself would have been impressed. Considered as a whole, the album is filled with intriguing contrast—Bach’s own contrasting styles are complemented by Tepfer’s contributions—whilst remaining intellectually coherent, and it makes for highly stimulating listening. Tepfer is a fantastic live performer and although currently there don’t appear to be any planned concerts for Inventions/Reinventions, fans of this album should watch out because watching him improvise live is a unique and utterly exhilarating experience. (Garreth Brooke)