Anything goes with Bach, and recent recordings play that up

Andras Schiff continues his survey into Bach’s keyboard music with a performance at Disney Hall.
Andras Schiff continues his survey into Bach’s keyboard music with a performance at Disney Hall.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Wednesday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, the probing Hungarian pianist András Schiff begins the third round in his three-season survey of Bach’s major keyboard works suitable for piano by playing the six “English” Suites.

Pianistic “purity” is Schiff’s style, entering into the essence of the notes and their vast implications for expression and meaning.

But when it comes to Bach, anything goes. Do with the music what you will. It welcomes abuse, loving or otherwise. And everything goes with Bach. There is no musical environment in which Bach’s music can’t comfortably abide.

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That is why, year after year, one form of Bach’s music or another is at the top of the classical and crossover charts. At the moment, Nonesuch has two new hit Bach releases — one is mandolinist Chris Thile’s lively take on the solo violin sonatas and partitas, the other is pianist Jeremy Denk’s eloquent account of the “Goldberg” Variations.

Fresh as Denk makes the variations feel, if that’s a little too old-school Goldbergian for you, you might turn to Dan Tepfer’s recording, in which each variation is followed by a short improvisation, respectfully grooving in and out of Bach as jazz musicians have done for generations.

There is “Goldberg” swing and there is also “Goldberg” squeeze. Last year not one but two accordionists — Teodoro Anzellotti (on Winter & Winter) and Janne Rättyä (on Ondine) — recorded the variations. Both play them straight, but nothing sounds straight on the squeeze box.

The German label ECM has a new Bach bestseller with a famed jazz pianist: Keith Jarrett teams up with violinist Michelle Makarski for a two-CD set of the six sonatas for violin and piano.

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The Bach effect is a strange phenomenon, however. While the works can encourage otherwise restrained musicians to live it up a little, the composer can also unexpectedly intimidate. There is nothing of Jarrett’s improvisational fluency in his Bach, which is squarely phrased to the point of stodginess, although Makarski is slightly more dramatic.

Leopold Stokowski famously made orchestral extravaganzas of Bach organ works when he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s. Now Philly’s current young music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, pays tribute to his distant predecessor in his first recording with the orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. Tastefully grandiose performances of three of those Bach transcriptions accompany a plush “Rite of Spring,” the disc’s main attraction.

Kristian Järvi calls his new Bach disc with his Absolute Ensemble on Sony Classical “Bach Re-Invented.” On it is Gene Pritsker’s “Reinventions,” a piano concerto for soloist Simone Dinnerstein. It also employs a DJ, a jazz saxophonist, a bandoneonist and an actor meant to be the voice of Bach. The score takes off from Bach’s keyboard Invention No. 1 and flirts, often entertainingly, with every style known to crossover, including smooth jazz fiddling, driving rock or vague allusions to Middle Eastern music.


By now, nothing takes a Bachian back.

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The violinist Jennifer Koh, the solo violin Einstein in Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” this weekend at the Music Center, happens to be in the midst of a “Bach & Beyond” project. The first disc in the series inserts between two Bach partitas a 1932 solo sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe and recent works by the established Finnish experimentalist Kaija Saariaho and the young Brooklyn fantasist Missy Mazzoli. The context keeps changing, but not Koh’s grippingly intense playing.

Francesco Tristano, a 29-year-old pianist from Luxembourg, made two Bach CDs for DG. Neither has been released in the U.S., but that need not stop us. They can be ordered over the Internet or downloaded from the French site,, in riveting high-definition .


The most recent disc combines Bach with his contemporary Buxtehude and Tristano’s own music (he is a jazz and pop pianist and composer as well). The playing is brilliant.

But more intriguing is the earlier “bachCage,” which goes back and forth between Bach, Cage and Tristano with the additional twist of electronically-enhanced reverb and other effects that make for a startlingly effective and original sonic glue.

This is hardly pure Bach. It is pure Tristano, and he is an original. Anything goes, to be sure, but the ingredients and how they’re used do make a difference.