Since 1955, when a then-unknown young pianist named Glenn Gould came along, the Goldberg Variations of J. S. Bach have been steadily gaining in stature. They’ve moved swiftly through several stages of public reception, from a pre-Gould reputation as a hyper-intellectual demonstration of compositional principles for harpsichord to an astounding feat of pianistic reinterpretation to what they have become today—the most exalted pieces of music ever written for solo keyboard. What made Wednesday’s outstanding performance of the legendary work even more impressive was that for pianist Christopher Taylor, the Goldberg Variations were probably the easy half of the program.
Taylor, who is familiar to Music Academy audiences from his highly regarded 2008 performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, left the Goldbergs, which he played with gusto and thrilling precision, until after intermission. The first half of the evening was devoted to The People United Will Never Be Defeated!—a truly astounding late-20th-century work by Frederic Rzewski. Between the two, Taylor accomplished a feat of pianistic memorization and performance of which the like will not be soon witnessed again anywhere—or at least anywhere outside of a Christopher Taylor recital.
The Goldbergs are so popular, and mean so much to so many people, it seems wise to begin at the end and talk about what Taylor made of them. In his dark suit, pocket square, and T-shirt, Taylor looked like a department chair leaving a meeting to run a marathon—which is also an apt description of the leading qualities he brings to Bach. His intellectual analysis and articulation of the underlying structures of these 30 miniature masterpieces guides the overall approach, but the impression his playing leaves is physical to the point of athleticism. In the piece’s penultimate section, his virtuosity was especially apparent, giving even current Goldberg champion recording artist and all-around piano superstar Murray Perahia a run for his money.
Yet for this listener, the revelation of the concert was the Rzewski. At well over an hour, the 36-part The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is not for those with short attention spans. Constructed in Bach’s manner as a densely self-referential matrix of exponentially increasing difficulty, TPUWNBD! nevertheless managed to swing hard at times, undermining the assumed boundaries between classical and popular music, and reinvigorating the kind of thinking about life and history that came naturally to composers in Bach’s era and which is so much harder to achieve in our own.