Reaching the Summit: Taylor and Beethoven

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Calderwood Hall this past Sunday, an expectant audience directed all eyes and ears to the audacious summit of one man. Christopher Taylor’s final triumphs in this fourth and final installment of Taylor’s self-proclaimed “crazed odyssey” through all nine of Beethoven’s Symphonies transcribed for solo piano by Liszt comprised Beethoven’s comedic Eighth and gargantuan Ninth.

Calderwood Hall placed Taylor at the focal point of a panopticon. He sat in the center of the cubical venue with spectators surrounding him at equidistant lengths. Combined with the unadorned elegance of the setting, affirmed by sleek, modern architecture and furniture, the space created an assumption of modest excellence. No need to ornament the already virtuosic music. This fit Taylor’s intentions, as programming all of Beethoven’s Symphonies for a soloist presupposes the pianist’s abilities. The hall additionally put Taylor on the same hardwood floor as the seating, with no barriers partitioning the two, thereby equalizing performer and audience. By design of the unostentatious performance space and his demanding program, Taylor entered the performance with an accumulation of mental and physical stress. These stressors left Taylor unphased, however, as he delivered a stunning performance.

Opening the concert with the Eighth, Taylor played the roles of conductor, orchestra, pianist, and adulating listener. Having memorized the entire score, no barrier existed between Taylor and the music, and as such he acted as a conduit. Throughout, his facial expression vacillated between emotions at the whims of the music. A warm grin of unbridled affection might quickly give way to pointed eyebrows and scrunched lips amidst furiosity, before being calmed by a mischievous, wry smile. His emotive face could serve as a guide, but the experience proved best amidst closed eyes. No other method on the part of the listener could have allowed for the suspension of disbelief necessary to hear an orchestrated symphony on a single piano. When the listener moved beyond this impossibility, clearly Taylor’s visually manifested passion carried over into his playing. Timbrally, of course, the piano cannot replicate the orchestra regardless of what the performer may try. But despite this limitation, Taylor’s reverent devotion to understanding Beethoven’s Symphonies sparked the imagination to hear the instruments of the orchestra. All parts may have been sonically equalized by the piano, but in Taylor’s playing the textural difference between the strings and winds could be discerned. That no part lost clarity or independence reflected both Taylor’s commitment to realizing the work’s intention and his abilities as an adept pianist. At times, however, the realities of the piano came to the forefront. During a section of vigorously repeated major chords towards the end of Symphony No. 8, Taylor’s use of the soft pedal, while allowing for aural clarity amidst the fully orchestrated triad, undermined the dramatic effect. But the sustain pedal would have greatly lost clarity and turned the independence of the orchestra that Taylor so carefully crafted into a homogeneous piano soup. Taylor understandably chose clarity over drama, but it created a rare moment of lost symphonic believability.

The sheer athleticism required by these pieces made an equally striking impression. Playing a symphony as one man means the body only physically rests when the work is finished. As Taylor progressed through the Eighth, sweat accumulated on his head and culminated in a finale where jets of water shot from him at each successive Beethovenian pounding of a chord. Throughout, though, his face betrayed no signs of his bodily fatigue, instead maintaining the fluctuating, engrossed emotions of the start. While his body displayed its failings, it made no impact on Taylor’s playing or his own emotional engagement. He had transcended the limitations of the body in service of art.

Taylor also frequently grunted and stomped. Though distracting, this exuberance clearly showed his total physical and spiritual commitment. He played the strings as a master puppeteer. A feeling of voyeurism emerged among us onlookers as Taylor seemingly existed in a parallel universe. Only when we ignored our eyes and trusted our ears could we join him there.

After a brief intermission, the Ninth closed the concert as well as Taylor’s herculean cycle. After Taylor had played the first eight symphonies in solitude, it felt appropriate for soprano Lara Secord-Haid, mezzo-soprano Britt Brown, tenors Alex McKissick and Lawrence Jones, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines to join Taylor at conclusion of this journey to sing the ode “To Joy.” The five stood in a circle, ensuring that everyone in the audience would see some faces and some backsides.

Following such an extensive focus on one man and one piano, the inclusion of five more people proved slightly jarring. Just as the audience had to adjust to the sudden textural switch, so too did the performers. At first the balance between the singers and pianist did not converge. At high energy, the piano’s fury swallowed the singer’s intended power, and at low piano energy the singer covered the piano’s orchestral synthesis. Alex McKissick’s darkly rich tenor initially struggled to mesh in all of its gravitas, but these balancing issues only lasted briefly, and the vocalists soon greatly heightened the conclusion of the Ninth. While McKissick and soprano Lara Secord-Haid stood out in their impassioned strength, the group functioned best amidst deindividualized unity. Nothing replaces the potency of human voices, making their inclusion wise and fundamental to inducing the catharsis brought by Beethoven’s final symphony. Even Liszt, recognizing essentialness of the choral component, included the option for vocal parts in his transcription as an alternative to a lonely piano.

While such a personalized and exposed presentation of such iconic works invites picky criticisms, we commend Christopher Taylor on his an rarely attempted accomplishment.

Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet. 




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