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Christopher Taylor Doubles His Trouble

Christopher Taylor and the Steinway double-manual piano (photo by Jeff Miller)
Christopher Taylor has made a name for himself mostly for daring, seat-of-the-pants renditions of modern music, like his memorable, idiosyncratic take on Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus last year. He came to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Wednesday night to play Bach's Goldberg Variations, a performance that, musically speaking, was not one of the most remarkable interpretations of the work. The appeal of the evening was the novelty of the instrument that Taylor brought with him, a Steinway double-manual piano that is the only exemplar of its kind ever built. The design was created by a composer and inventor named Emanuel Moór (1863-1931), who convinced several keyboard companies to build models of his two-manual piano. Steinway built its single prototype in its Hamburg factory in 1929, and from there, according to Taylor's account, it went to a Berlin concert venue. It was badly damaged in World War II, sent to the Steinway factory in New York for repairs, and thence to a professor at the University of Wisconsin, where it ultimately ended up in Christopher Taylor's office there.

The instrument has a few noteworthy quirks that Taylor explained, in a slightly dry, off-the-cuff presentation. Both keyboards are linked to the same sound board and set of strings, with the upper one striking the strings an octave higher than the lower one. The white and black keys of the lower keyboard extend together, at a single level, until they continue under the upper keyboard, making a fully chromatic glissando possible in that area between the manuals. A fourth pedal can couple the two keyboards together, making instant octaves possible by playing only single notes (or doubled octaves, by playing octaves). The most important effect the instrument has on playing the Goldberg Variations is in the several movements Bach designed especially for the two-manual harpsichord he had in mind. As if to make the point, Taylor took most of those double-manual movements (5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, and 28), which on normal pianos require a delicate sleight of hand to manage the hand-crossing effects, as fast as possible. The visual arc of the two hands, split apart as on a double-manual harpsichord, helped the ear to understand what Bach was doing with the interaction of the two hands.

While Taylor did well highlighting the instrument's strengths, this was not a particularly strong performance technically or musically. Taylor had memory slips, an all-out blank in the third variation that required him to start again, as well as less noticeable ones in 20, 27, and 28. In general, Taylor sacrificed technical polish for unusual tempo or attacks, an interpretation that was more a series of quirky character pieces than a large architectural form. He made no real attempt to keep his tempo choices in proportion to one another, and although he took most of the repeats, he added very few embellishments.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Varies His Style on Bach's Goldberg Variations (Washington Post, October 16)
In most of the canons, which occur every third movement with the comes following the dux at an interval that increases by a step with each canon, Taylor took a very slow tempo, choosing to bring out the contrapuntal voices with as much deliberate clarity as possible. It was as if those nine pieces, played in an enigmatic way not unlike how some approach The Art of Fugue, were imported into a much flashier work of greater stylistic variety. While playing them, Taylor even seemed to imitate Glenn Gould, hunching over the keys and ruminating over inscrutable arcana. The most satisfying moment involved the use of that fourth pedal, coupling the two keyboards together, on the repeats of the Quodlibet: the ringing of all those additional octaves gave the impression of a raucous band of revelers intoning the quoted popular songs in a joyous jumble. The encore, Taylor's own double-manual transcription of one of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes (no. 3, F major, "Paysage"), made one smile at the thought of Liszt himself seated at such an instrument. He would have been like a kid in a candy shop.

Christopher Taylor will be back in the area later this month, for a free recital at the Baltimore Museum of Art (October 24, 3 pm), sponsored by Shriver Hall. The program examines the variation form, pairing Derek Bermel's Turning and Frederic Rzewski's fiendish set of variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated! with Beethoven's op. 34 variations.

1 comment:

Martin Fritter said...

Sorry to hear about the problems with this performance. I've heard Christopher Taylor on several occasions and he was always well prepared. This includes a performance of the Goldberg(s?) on a standard piano. There was no trickery, but it was astounding.

I also heard Ursla Oppens play the Rzewski and it's both a masterpiece and a huge treat. I hope the problems with the performance under review won't put anybody off of seeing the Shriver one.