The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: University of Wisconsin pianist Christopher Taylor turns in an astonishing performance that was unusual, eclectic and subtle as well as athletic and politically progressive.

November 14, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

On first glance, the program pianist Christopher Taylor (below) chose to perform last Thursday night in Mills Hall seemed an odd and unusual one – one that stood a very good chance of not working, especially in lesser hands.

The music ran the gamut from Beethoven and Brahms to Liszt and then onto contemporary American composers Frederic Rzewski and Derek Bermel. Add in a rag by jazz great Art Tatum, and you get some idea of the range of the music and playing that the acclaimed University of Wisconsin virtuoso presented.

It was simply was one the most unusual and original, most impressive and enjoyable, piano recitals I have ever heard over many years.

Part of the fun, of course was the sheer energy that Taylor expended on stage during more than two hours of industrial strength pianism.

But by placing the various works and composers in the context of each other, listeners also learned new things, even about old music.

Taylor opened with Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 119. These 11 rarely heard miniatures were performed exquisitely, with a clarity of voicing and structure that you unfortunately don’t often get to hear. Still, the works reminded one that, with a very few exceptions, Beethoven’s bagatelles simply cannot compare with, say, Chopin’s preludes when it comes to terse beauty – just as Chopin never mastered the longer forms that Beethoven excelled at.

To my ears, the bagatelles often sound more like outtakes from the more famous and more ambitious piano sonatas. They reinforce the notion that Beethoven (below) was at his absolute best when he was working in long forms that require development: that means the piano and violin concertos and the symphonies, followed by the string quartets, piano sonatas and sonatas for violin and cello.

Brahms Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, are another relative rarity, usually subsumed by the more famous intermezzi and capriccios of the Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119 piano pieces. But once again Taylor sweated the details and showed the sheer classical craftmanship as well as the restrained lyricism of Brahms (below). 

With clarity and feeling, he conveyed sentiment without sentimentality and brought out the modern Brahms more than the Romantic Brahms. I found the playing nothing short of revelatory, a performance that made me want to go home, take out a CD and scores, and explore the often enigmatic and neglected pieces even more. Great performances do that.

Then came Frederic Rzeski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” from “Four American Ballads.”  Programmed well in advance, the piece nonetheless proved a perfect choice to play two days after the Ohio vote reaffirming the collective bargaining rights of public workers. Rzewski (below) is an unabashed political progressive and defender of labor unions who composed a huge set of variations on the rally chant “The People United Can Never Be Defeated.”

But more than the program of the music, it was the music itself that impressed you as you watched Taylor’s journey into full-body piano playing. He rocked out and plunged into the bass as he reiterated the loud and rhythmic oppression of repetitive work at man-killer machines. At times, he used his whole forearm; at other times, he punched the keyboard with a fist.

It was nothing short of breath-taking in a way that recalled Prokofiev’s fearsome Toccata. Taylor’s playing showed complete involvement, an interpretation of the music by an American original that conveyed the same earnestness and angry spirit of protest it was composed in.

Derek Bermel’s appealing “Turning” showed various influence, especially multi-ethnic influences, from hymn-like tunes to dance-like rhythms, from the Caribbean and Africa as well as American blues. It as completely unknown to me, and turns out to be some something of a specialty of Taylor, who knows the composer (below), a former student of William Bolcom who also recently was artist-in-residence at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, and who gave the world premiere of this work in 1995.

Finally came the obligatory Liszt to mark the bicentennial of that composer’s birth. As UW piano professor Todd Welbourne’s imaginative electronic audio-visual installation outside Mills Hall (below) showed, Liszt was really two men: the composer capable of rare and sublime beauty; and the piano virtuosic who too often could not resist the trashy show-off schmaltz of cascading notes, scales, arpeggios and octaves.

Yet Taylor took a subtle, softer and relatively quieter approach to the famous Six “Paganini” Etudes. As a result, he found whatever music there is in these virtuosic and gymnastic showpieces. Taylor left no doubt that he possesses 10 incredibly strong and absolutely independent fingers capable of playing any music by any composer. That softer approach worked well, though Liszt still comes up lacking when you compare what he did to the famous Paganini theme, say, with the variations on the same theme that Rachmaninoff composed.

As an encore, Taylor zipped through an astonishing transcription of he encore: a transcription of the Tiger Rag by jazz piano master Art Tatum (below). Tatum, who was blind, surely ranks as one of the top piano virtuosos of the 20th century. No less than Vladimir Horowitz was a fan who went to hear Tatum play so he could learn new things, new tricks if you will, about the keyboard.

My one regret involves absence. I still think that the perfect way to round out an evening like this, one of totally demanding music in a totally committed performance, would have been to end on a quiet and simpler note – perhaps a Bach chorale prelude or a Chopin prelude or a simple heartfelt tune by Schumann.

But then again, I say: Hell, if I could play the piano like Christopher Taylor, who knows what I would – or wouldn’t — do?

Were you there?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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