When Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are upstaged by the instrument

Sun Nov 01, 2009 at 12:15 am

By Gerald Fisher

Christopher Taylor performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Christopher Taylor brought his one-of-a-kind Steinway dual-manual piano to Chicago’s Mandel Hall Friday to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and it was unclear after the concert whether the star of the evening was the artist or the piano. 

At the beginning of the concert Taylor recounted a brief history of the Steinway-Moor’s odyssey since its manufacture in 1929, fitted out with a double keyboard developed by the eccentric Hungarian musician and inventor Emmanuel Moor. The instrument (the only such Steinway in existence, though there are other prototypes known) ended up at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was lying dormant and uncared-for until the School of Music, where Taylor teaches, decided to restore it to full performance capacity. 

It’s an amazing piece of work. The double keyboard consists of a lower manual with the standard 88 keys merging into an upper one which has 76 keys and sounds one octave higher.  The keyboards can be played independently or together by using a fourth pedal to couple them. That action plus the design of the keys enables the performer to achieve a richer chromatic texture, increased speed, and a reach that can extend over two octaves for one hand.  

Taylor has carted the instrument around with him to concerts in various venues across the country and the Goldberg Variations, which was intended by Bach for a double-manual harpsichord, was the obvious choice to perform. The pianist remarked that the double keyboard made a lot of the technical challenges of the work easier to play than on a single keyboard. 

Taylor’s performance seemed aimed to display the instrument’s noteworthy qualities rather than to explore the depths of one of Bach’s most profound late keyboard works  Its  disparate sarabandes, toccatas, dances, canons and other forms, genres and categories require both faultless execution and an overall architecture that communicates Bach’s vision of the art of the keyboard in his time.

The pianist’s technique was certainly up to the music’s requirements but the variations seemed disengaged from each other and several of them went at impossibly breakneck speeds, especially in the second half of the program where the playing was progressively more brilliant as he neared the penultimate Quodlibet and the return of the opening Aria.  

An intermission between  the 15th and 16th variations allowed the curious audience to take a look at the strange beast on the stage, but took away from the continuity and overarching structure of the piece.  

Still, a stimulating experience. The performer’s finest moment of the evening was in Variation 25, a darkly chromatic adagio which seems to look far into the future – almost anticipating the late music of Liszt. In fact the program ended with Taylor’s arrangement of Liszt’s Paysages, richly romantic and thunderous – one imagines that the old showman would have loved this curious but compelling instrument.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “When Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are upstaged by the instrument”

  1. Posted Nov 02, 2009 at 10:24 am by Anthony Shafton

    The reviewer is right on. Taylor showed himself fully capable of conveying Bach’s lyrical depth in the slow passages, but completely trounced the melodic continuity in the fast. The reviewer omits only to mention the bizarre inclusion of an arrangement of Liszt as an encore. I mean, why would you follow the Goldberg Variations with Liszt if it weren’t the embarrass Liszt?

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