Christopher Taylor performs the Bach Goldberg Variations on the Steinway-Moór Concert Grand, a unique dual-manual Steinway.
This model D concert grand by Steinway & Sons and is the only Steinway equipped with a double keyboard developed by Emanuel Moór (1863-1931). It was built by Steinway for Werner von Siemens of Berlin and sold to him in 1929. The piano was purchased by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961 for the use of Gunnar Johansen, artist in residence at the university at the time. After Johansen’s death in 1991, it remained unused for many years until John Schaffer, director of the School of Music, and Christopher Taylor, professor of piano at the school, began discussing the prospect of restoring it to optimum playing capacity several years ago. The completion of the rebuilding project by Steinway in 2007 marks the beginning of a new stage in the instrument’s life. It will now be used for selected tour dates by Taylor and heard in concert at its home at the university.
The lower keyboard of 88 keys resembles that of a typical piano. The upper keyboard of 76 keys is one octave shorter in the treble but sounds one octave higher than the corresponding key on the lower keyboard. Each keyboard can be played independently but both can be coupled together by depressing a pedal located between the una corda (far left) and sostenuto (second-from-right) pedals. A catch mechanism allows the pedal to be retained in its depressed position. When the keyboards are coupled, each note played on the lower keyboard sounds both its own pitch and that of the key directly behind it on the upper keyboard, one octave higher. As a result, polyphonic textures available to the player are greatly expanded, volume levels may be increased, and chords which extend over two octaves may be played with one hand.
Since the piano’s restoration in 2007, Christopher Taylor has brought the instrument to life for complete performances of the Bach Goldberg Variations in select venues across the country. The instruments 21st century debut took place in Taylor’s hands at the CaraMoór Festival, followed by his performances at Ravinia, the Gilmore Festival and the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
Many individuals have played a part in the restoration of the Steinway double-manual piano and in providing the means for it to be heard on tour.
John Wiley, chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
John Schaffer, director, School of Music, UW-Madison
Baoli Liu and Mark Ultsch, piano technicians, School of Music
Christopher Taylor, associate professor of piano, School of Music
Chris Arena, Bonnie Barrett, Ljubomir Begonja, Ed Carrasco, Peter Goodrich and Michael Megaloudis, Steinway & Sons
Kenneth Wentworth, Jonathan Wentworth Associates, Ltd.
“Two keyboards give Mr. Taylor’s hands space to maneuver… the mouths of pianists in the audience must have been watering. More important were Mr. Taylor’s legitimate talents as a Bach player. The modern piano is built for smoothness of tone. Bach’s interweaving voices require separate, identifiable colors. Mr. Taylor’s varieties of touch showed both love and good sense. Mr. Moór’s invention stood out in the last of the variations, with added-on octaves producing joyful noise for grand-finale effect.”
New York Times
“…he has emerged as the leading American pianist of his generation.”
“Taylor made the Steinway work, finding a curiously successful balance between the distinct articulation required for the terraced baroque textures and propelling momentum of the Allegros with the absolute legato of a Chopin cantilena in the Adagio.”
“Christopher Taylor, the superb soloist, brought a deep focus and ease to the outer movements’ ebb and flow and a fierce dexterity to the middle section, “Edgy,” a bustling workout that recalled music by Prokofiev and Raymond Scott.” [Sebastian Currier Concerto]
New York Times
“the best performance I have ever heard of [Schumann’s] Piano Concerto … absolutely propulsive in its energy. Taylor stepped on the gas and delivered a sharp, driven performance that proved irresistible… showed how beneath the arch-Romantic surface, Schumann had a thorough command of Classical-era techniques.”
Well Tempered Ear
“Mr. Taylor is more typically heard in heavier repertory, from Liszt to Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, and this concerto seemed easy work for him. In the fast outer movements, especially, the solo line was clean, bright and crisply articulated, and it danced off the page.” [Haydn Piano Concerto in D (Hob. XVIII:11)]
New York Times
“…after two hours at the keyboard, Taylor had become a wild man in the thrall of a great vision, seemingly possessed of superhuman powers. Clearly forces beyond the normal were at play.”
Los Angeles Times
“Christopher Taylor, a versatile, ready-for-anything soloist, delivered a brilliant, intense performance”
“…strengths in this performance included crisp coordination of piano and strings, keyed to Taylor’s unfailingly alert rhythmic sense and bold sonority.” [Brahms Piano Quintet with the Ying Quartet]
“But that Christopher Taylor… also played Messiaen’s approximately 130-minute work flawlessly and entirely from memory was astounding. It is doubtful that many of us who heard Taylor’s transcendent traversal of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for Cal Performances can imagine another pianist making an equal impact in such challenging music…. the performance was extraordinary. Taylor, who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a mathematics degree in 1992 – two years after he received first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition – is a genius. I doubt few present will forget how he lifted us to a realm beyond time and space.”
San Francisco Classical Voice 1/27/08
“To tackle a handful of György Ligeti’s explosive and intricate piano etudes shows a degree of bravery and dedication. To play all 28 of them, as Christopher Taylor did in a magnificent recital in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall on Sunday afternoon, is a Herculean undertaking… [Taylor] seemed almost to shrug off the difficulties involved. It isn’t that he made the performance seem effortless – no one could do that, nor would it be a good idea if they could – but that he incorporated the very idea of difficulty into the essence of the performance.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“But most of the études are vehemently intense and ferociously difficult…Mr. Taylor played them all with incisive rhythm, lucid textures and, where the music allowed, alluring colors. Still, the sheer effort involved in playing these works was something to behold.”
New York Times
“Taylor’s playing – emotionally volatile yet scrupulously weighted and voiced – worked hand-in-glove with McDuffie’s.”
“…the blazing performance of Messiaen’s ”Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus” by Christopher Taylor in the Gardner Museum is likely to stand as a point of reference for many seasons to come.”
“Throughout Mr. Taylor played with unflagging energy and an impressive ability to articulate and even swing those complex rhythms. There was a mesmerizing self-possession in these performances, as if a vigorous dialogue between pianist and composer were taking place entirely inside Mr. Taylor’s head and simply finding expression in his fingers. The nature of the discussion was anyone’s guess, but it was a pleasure to listen in.”
The New York Times
“…and his performance of three of William Bolcom’s splendid “Twelve New Etudes” [was] delivered with a daring spontaneity that masked some phenomenal technique”
“…his performance was a highlight of the season and already represents an astonishing achievement.”
The New York Times
“…Taylor really nailed it, certainly deserving the multiple bows he gave and standing ovation he got when it was over. He drew a plump, cushy sound from the big Steinway.” (with The St. Louis Symphony)
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The young pianist Christopher Taylor is so talented it’s almost frightening…Taylor revealed limpid, legato lines of plaintive beauty. His ear was alert to the fantasy and drama in this work.”
The Boston Globe
“Taylor returned to the stage…and once again displayed a remarkable combination of brain, heart and fingers. In past appearances here, he has demonstrated his ability to bound from Bach to Messiaen, from Rachmaninoff to Boulez – and do it all persuasively. Taylor can do it all.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A stunning new recording of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Twelve New Etudes” (1977-86) features Christopher Taylor… [The etudes] require a pianist of equally nimble intelligence and imagination – not to mention physical endurance – and Taylor is more than up to the challenge.” (CD review)
The New Yorker
Wall Street Journal Taylor plays rare Bösendorfer at the Met
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “precise playing and interpretive conviction” [Lutoslawski Concerto]
Chicago Tribune “A two-fisted talent with lightning reflexes…”
[Bernstein: Age of Anxiety]
The Daily Camera “impeccable in the exceedingly difficult solo”
The New York Times “a dazzlingly virtuosic and thoughtful musician”
The New York Times “a powerful interpretation”, “dazzling”, “poetic”
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “a stunning performance”
Capital Times Schumann Piano Concerto – Madison Symphony
Well Tempered Ear Schumann Piano Concerto – Madison Symphony
Classical Voice North Carolina Britten’s Young Apollo with the North Carolina Symphony
New & Observer Britten’s Young Apollo with the North Carolina Symphony
Los Angeles Times“a powerfully dramatic performance” — Goldberg Variations
Boston Musical Intelligencer Goldberg Variations at the Gardner Museum of Art
Los Angeles Times
July 11, 2008
…after two hours at the keyboard, Taylor had become a wild man in the thrall of a great vision, seemingly possessed of superhuman powers. Clearly forces beyond the normal were at play. …
San Francisco Classical Voice
Jason Victor Serinus
Posted January 27, 2008
It is doubtful that many of us who heard Taylor’s transcendent traversal of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for Cal Performances can imagine another pianist making an equal impact in such challenging music…
Le Temps (Geneva)
July 25, 2006
Christopher Taylor sometimes gave proof of a snarling and impassioned rage, of an engagement rendered possible by a faultless technique. But he also knew how to illustrate, with ample breathing, the most enigmatic portions (as in Regard du temps) those that bestow upon this mystical work an aura of unfathomable mystery.
August 29, 2003
In the end this was an evening devoted to the exploration of limits. Most apparent were the almost superhuman control, coordination and concentration of the performer. Also tested were the infinite color, dynamic, and textural possibilities of the grand piano.
The New York Times
February 6, 2001
You have to have intelligence to be a concert pianist. But the depth of Christopher Taylor’s intelligence is intimidating.
The Boston Globe
October 22, 2002
… It was wonderful to hear Taylor play with the inwardness, simplicity, and tenderness that he brought to the quieter movements and moments. In his still-developing combination of intellect, adventurousness, brawn, and open feeling, he has emerged as the leading American pianist of his generation.
By Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, 4/4/2003
Piano man: This has been a great season for pianists, and we haven’t heard Dubravka Tomsic, Murray Perahia, or Robert Levin yet. Still, the blazing performance of Messiaen’s ”Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus” by Christopher Taylor in the Gardner Museum is likely to stand as a point of reference for many seasons to come.
Taylor’s latest CD has just appeared, another colossus of the repertory, Liszt’s ”Transcendental Etudes” on a new Denver label called Liszt Digital. Taylor devours these pieces but he also savors them; as in the Messiaen, Taylor is as attentive to detail as he is to sweep. If he gives ”Mazeppa” a wild ride, he is also sensitive in ”Paysage” and ”Ricordanza.” No pianist of past or present can claim to be uniformly effective in all twelve of these pieces; ”Feux Follets” (”Fireflies”) lacks lightness and flicker. But there is genuine exaltation in Taylor’s delivery of ”Harmonies du soir.” The recorded sound is spectacular, and there is an endearing photo in the booklet of Taylor toweling off after his superhuman effort in the recording sessions. You can order the compact disc for $16 (plus $1.60 for postage and handling) from www.lisztdigital.com
February 20, 2004
Christopher Taylor’s Enthusiastic ‘Vingt Regards’
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
[Taylor’s 2004 Kennedy Center appearance on the Fortas Chamber Music Series]
“…a fervent and almost orchestral performance…To perform “Vingt regards” is no easy feat; it’s a monumental, two-hour work in which stellar technique and herculean stamina are but the bare minimum requirements for its 20 pieces…Of the set, No. 9 “Regard du Temps” had the most distinctive orchestral sounds: A reverberating bass sounded like timpani; a clear-cut chordal middle range sounded like a full brass section; an icy flourish of notes in the upper octaves sounded like bells and harp. Achieving a reedy sound in No. 18 “De l’Onction Terrible,” Taylor attained a majestic fortissimo that sounded like an orchestra in full swell…In the second half, Taylor focused on rhythmic intricacies and melodic permutations. It conveyed a sense of unrelenting urgency that seemed to propel the latter 10 pieces toward the recital’s conclusion. Along the way, Taylor’s colors dispelled the progression of time. Iridescent trills in the nocturne-like No. 15 “Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jesus” created an ageless beauty…an impressive end to an incredibly daunting work.”
February 6, 2001
Christopher Taylor: Summa Cum Laude in Math, With a Taste for Messiaen
By Anthony Tommasini
You have to have intelligence to be a concert pianist. But the depth of Christopher Taylor’s intelligence is intimidating. Before a rapt audience at the Miller Theater on Saturday night, Mr. Taylor, a lanky 31-year-old pianist who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from Harvard, gave an astonishing performance of Messiaen’s complete “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” more than two hours of some of the most complex and difficult music ever written for the piano. And he played the 176-page score from memory.
Though this 1944 work is a landmark of 20th-century music, for Messiaen, a devout Catholic and profoundly spiritual thinker, it was a deeply personal statement of faith: 20 “regards,” which translates as looks or views, as in contemplations, on the infant Jesus. The music draws from all elements of Messiaen’s language: modal harmonies, cluster chords thick with tart dissonance, metrically complex meters based on Hindu and Greek rhythms, chantlike melodies and skittish bird calls. The moods veer between states of meditative stillness and ecstatic exuberance.
Messiaen did not necessarily intend for the work to be performed complete. Peter Serkin famously did so, from memory, on a 25-stop concert tour in 1974-75 after four years of intensive study. To put Mr. Taylor’s brain power in context, less than a year ago he had learned only a few of these 20 pieces; and just weeks ago he told an interviewer he was still memorizing the work.
But judging from his brilliant performance, he has absorbed this music in record time. He is not the most sensual or poetic pianist, nor is he primarily a colorist. His fingers are like search-and-destroy units zapping the keys, working at the behest of his probing mind and keen imagination. Still, there was fancy, beauty, tenderness and white-hot energy in his playing.
Absorbing the music is not the same thing as living with it. He was at his best in the exuberant pieces, like the “View of the Spirit of Joy,” with its crazed rush of lines, bouts of entangled counterpoint and volleys of thick repeated chords. He was less at ease in the ruminative near-timeless pieces, like the first, the “View of the Father,” though he achieved a state of blissful peace in “The Child Jesus’ Kiss.”
Still, his performance was a highlight of the season and already represents an astonishing achievement. And it should only grow deeper as Mr. Taylor lives with the music in the future. That is, unless his restless brain has already moved on to something else.
The New York Times ran a feature article about pianist Christopher Taylor recently, during a run of engagements he gave in New York in February (2001). Here’s what Times reporter Kathryn Shattuck had to say about this remarkable young artist:
Christopher Taylor: Seeking Adventure for Fingers and Mind
By Kathryn Shattuck
Those who know the pianist Christopher Taylor tend to speak of him in the hushed, reverent tones typically reserved for natural wonders if not the otherworldly. Colleagues trip over words like “innocence,” “fervor,” “beauty” and “vision” in an attempt to capture his elusive personality. Critics praise his virtuosity, his cerebral interpretations tempered by an aching tenderness, his unconventional programming and his advocacy of late-20th-century music.
Mr. Taylor’s bold individuality may never have been more evident than at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1993, where he took the bronze medal, becoming the first American to place in the event since 1981. In a year when Rachmaninoff dominated the concerto round, Mr. Taylor bucked the trend with renditions of the Brahms B flat and the Bach D minor. He saved his Rachmaninoff, an “étude-Tableau,” for an encore. Mr. Taylor ” Kit to his friends ” has always had a mind of his own.
“I have described Kit as a kind of Parsifal with a computer mind, with a tremendous innocence in what he projects in music and a fervent belief and devotion that shows in certain works with tremendous conviction,” said the pianist Russell Sherman, with whom Mr. Taylor studied on and off for a decade. “He is one of those strange genius types but very well balanced. The basic package is powerful.”
The cellist Fred Sherry, who hired Mr. Taylor for the current festival “A Great Day in New York,” said: “When you talk to him, you feel that things are percolating inside his head, but when he plays, that all goes away and his attention is totally focused. Whatever he brings to bear goes into the music.”
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Taylor sat before a Steinway in the Rose Studio at Lincoln Center, where he would later rehearse for his “Great Day” performances, which end on Tuesday evening at Alice Tully Hall with Tobias Picker’s “Invisible Lilacs,” featuring the violinist Robert McDuffie. But with time to spare, Mr. Taylor was trying to make peace with Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus” (“Twenty Gazes on the Child Jesus”), which he will perform in its two-hour entirety in the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Saturday evening.
“I like to describe the work as a kind of great odyssey,” said Mr. Taylor, more than 6 feet tall and elegant, with a maturity and a formal diction that belie his 31 years “It is a sort of intellectual exercise, and it can be hard to pull off.”
“The stereotype is that 20th-century music is hard music, like a `Wozzeck’ or a `Lulu,’ something like horror-movie music. But the Messiaen is wholesome and joyful and outgoing and optimistic and celebratory music. Sometimes Messiaen acts a little icy and mathematical, to use the term in its pejorative sense, but there are various motifs: the theme of God, the theme of joy, the theme of love. It requires an audience ready for a big adventure.”
Composed in occupied France for the composer’s pupil (and later his wife), Yvonne Loriod, who recorded it, “Vingt Regards” is thorny and expansive, with impenetrable rhythms, crashing dissonances and “rainbow” sonorities countered by strong, simple melodies. Requiring a furious technique, it rests at the apex of 20th-century piano music and poses great difficulties even for highly accomplished pianists.
“All that is required from the performer is everything,” Paul Griffiths wrote in The New York Times last month, when a Norwegian pianist, Hakon Austbo, took up the challenge, “including, in particular, enormous resources of range (in texture, color, touch, force), of concentration and of certainty.”
Mr. Sherman suggests that “Vingt Regards” was designed for a pianist like Mr. Taylor: “It has tremendous devotional tenderness, and the work is really meant for him in a way because of that emotional center. Some of the pieces are technically complex, very busy, powerful. Kit negotiates the keyboard ” I wouldn’t say with remarkable grace; he is not a leggiero pianist ” so accurately, so precisely and so targeted and so directed to his goal that it is frightening and wonderful.”
Indeed, for Mr. Taylor, some of the work’s allure seems to lie in its difficulty. He begins playing a segment ” singing, moaning, his expression rapidly shifting between pain and euphoria ” then stops to interpret, to explain: the refrain based on primary numbers; the rhythms that unfold, like wings, then wrap back onto themselves; the notation, with its virtually indecipherable clusters, which only a mathematician could fully appreciate.
Mr. Taylor was born in Boulder, Colo., to a physicist and a high school English teacher, who enthusiastically encouraged their 7- year-old son’s dream to learn the Beethoven piano sonatas.
“I was very eager to get started,” Mr. Taylor said, recalling how he would compare his father’s scores of Beethoven symphonies with recordings “to see how notes and music lined up.”
A year later, he entered the studio of Julie Bees, then a doctoral student at the University of Colorado, armed with the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata.
“He had an intense passion for the music at the very beginning,” said Ms. Bees, now an associate professor at Wichita State University. “And he had a penetrating intellect for an 8-year-old, asking questions like `What does this “l’istesso tempo” refer to,’ questions that you hope you’ll never meet on your doctoral exam. It was scary.”
She diverted his Beethoven ambitions for a time, but Mr. Taylor never forgot them, arriving at each lesson with his volume of sonatas on top of the pile, “just to remind me what his goal was,” Ms. Bees said.
AT 10, he gave his first formal recital and performed one of his own works, “Thunderstorm,” for a convention of music teachers. He also developed a taste for the rags of Scott Joplin and began composing his own. He sent his works to the composer William Bolcom, himself a rag lover, who sent back a letter of encouragement.
“Kit’s pieces I remember as being very fresh and fun, and then I found out he was just a kid,” Mr. Bolcom said. Later, Mr. Taylor took to playing Joplin rags as encores. And last summer, he recorded Mr. Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “12 New études” for future release, in an interpretation the composer has called “wonderful.”
By 13, Mr. Taylor had won his division in a national competition for young pianists. But his aspirations were not limited to music, and as his senior year of high school approached, he and his father embarked on a search for a college at which his predilection for mathematics could be honed as well.
He settled on Harvard, he said, largely because he wanted to study on the side with Mr. Sherman, himself an iconoclastic interpreter.
“Kit was exceptional in my mind,” Mr. Sherman said of their first meeting. “He showed up with an English twang to him” ” Mr. Taylor’s father is English ” “an Eton collar and with a slight reserve, and he played one of those Messiaen works. He was very convincing, very powerful, very overwhelming.
“I teach a small class, and generally there is a lot of pondering as to whom to enroll. With Kit, it was unmistakable, and I told his father, `If you want to come to Boston and have him study with me, I will accept him on the spot.’ That’s how convincing an impression he made.”
If there was a moment when Mr. Taylor felt he had arrived ” and he hesitates to pinpoint one ” it may have been the summer of 1990, when he was among the first four recipients of the Gilmore Young Artist Award, a scholarship for promising American pianists. Soon thereafter, he took first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition at the University of Maryland, where he met the woman who was to become his wife, Denise Pilmer, who holds a doctorate in musicology. They have a 10-month-old daughter, Ellie.
After the Kapell victory, Mr. Taylor set about getting his feet wet, touring in cities as disparate as Knoxville, Tenn., and New York, and learning to adjust to a variety of pianos and audiences.
In 1992, after graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in mathematics, he studied in London for a year with Maria Curcio Diamond. By now, it was apparent that he would be competing in the Cliburn, and he turned his attention to repertory. In June 1993, he flew to Forth Worth bearing the sort of idiosyncratic fare that was soon to become his trademark: the 10th segment of the Messiaen, Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven’s Opus 111 Sonata and Boulez’s Second Sonata, a work that he describes as “very uncompromising, fiercely complex” and that took him a year to learn.
“I went in with zero expectations, and I was pleased with the outcome,” he said of the competition and of winning the bronze medal.
Unlike some Cliburn finalists, who immediately dropped off the map, Mr. Taylor has made headway with his career. In 1996, he earned an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and last year he won an award from the American Pianists Association. He performs more than 25 concerts a season, he said, just enough to keep him established on the concert circuit while teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in a position to which he was appointed last year.
“You make choices in your career, and teaching is something I believe every well- rounded person in the arts should do,” he said. “Performing more than 100 concerts a year is not my idea of success.”
In his spare time, he reads mathematics textbooks (“a sort of Mount Everest achievement would be to understand the proof of Fermat’s last theorem,” he said) and programs computers. And with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, he has written a paper on free will, to be published by Oxford University Press this year.
Still, Mr. Sherman likes to recall the time he emphatically asked Mr. Taylor why, after graduating from Harvard, placing at the Cliburn and earning a master’s from the New England Conservatory, he would spend the next year and a half at the conservatory, pursuing a doctorate in piano performance (a pursuit he put on hold, just a semester shy of his degree, to take up the position in Wisconsin).
The reply, Mr. Sherman reports, was delivered in dead earnest: “Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being introduced with my wife as Dr. and Mr. Taylor.”
Kathryn Shattuck, a news assistant at The New York Times, writes about classical music.