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The Variations United Are Indefatigable

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Christopher Taylor’s October 2017 recital at Pickman Hall was an exciting event, giving a knowing audience a cross-sectional view of the eclectic repertory of this inquiring pianist whose technical expertise seems boundless, with intelligence and sensibility to match. Last Saturday night in the same hall we heard a different kind of program: enormous, heroic, even combative. There were two works, both in expansive theme-and-variation form. The opener, a monumental first half of the program, was Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Rzewski (pronounced Zhefsky) is one of the three or four most important living American composers — I include Harbison and Bolcom — but much of his career has been in Italy and Belgium. A native of Massachusetts, he turns 80 this year. In Europe Rzewski is known as a composer in various media, including electronics but especially in piano music, which he performs as expertly as anyone alive, and also as an activist in socialist and liberationist political causes.

It is easy to separate the politics from the music when considering The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of 36 variations in six symmetrical cycles based on a Chilean folksong speaking to the spirit of the Allende era. Rzewski composed it in 1975, for Ursula Oppens, who commissioned, premiered, and recorded it. Other pianists with a commitment to contemporary music have also made it a centerpiece. I own several recordings, including Rzewski’s own (one of no less than seven discs of Rzewski playing his own music). The massive work is learned, intellectual, as tightly organized as anything by Schoenberg or Webern, but capacious in inspiration and athletic in D minor like a Rachmaninoff concerto — indeed, it adds to the noble tradition of D minor like Brahms’s First Piano Concerto or Schoenberg’s First Quartet. It shows grandeur as well as grandiosity, textural-contrapuntal excitement, chromatic otherworldliness, Ivesian nuttiness as well as Ivesian tenderness, and undeniable magnificence. Lasting over an hour, it is certainly too long, but so are Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

Taylor’s preliminary remarks drew a comparison between the Rzewski and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, pointing out the pervasive architecture obvious in both sets. The variations in The People United are organized in six groups of six, cyclically related not only within each group but within the set as a whole; one heard fragments of, say, variation 19 reappearing with rhythmic transformation in variation 31. This kind of interpenetrated overall structure is a brilliant answer to the textural symmetry and episodic numbering that are the formal weakness of so many works in variation form, deplored by Debussy as “a facile procedure for making a lot out of very little.” At the same time, a problem of geographical symmetry remains in The People United, where there is often the sense of too much motion upward answered directly by downward. Arpeggios, scales, and heavy textures abound, with extreme dynamic contrasts, even if always with fair and well-planned distribution. Variations 11 and 12 call for the pianist (optionally) to whistle some notes. Taylor offered an appropriate dodge on a small synthesizer which he operated with his left hand, but this was just a minor conceit in an overall performance that radiated utmost confidence and control amid the most dangerous virtuosity. It was especially startling to realize that Taylor memorized every detail of this score, which is 93 pages long (a fellow pianist told me that Rzewski himself used the music when he played it in concert at Yale). The folksong theme reappears amiably at the end, ambling along like Rachmaninoff’s No. 12 Paganini variation but with a fff postlude.

Bach’s Aria with 30 Variations, S.988, make use of a 32-bar passacaglia-like bass — never exactly the same melodically from variation to variation — in two symmetrical binary halves. The architecture includes both contrapuntal inversion (a melody on top restated on the bottom, or vice versa) and melodic inversion (a line moving upward restated in downward motion, and vice versa) but also from time to time manual inversion (right hand below left or left above right, in several of the variations conceived for two manual keyboards), with the most egregious instance being variation 26, which combines all three of these symmetries. As Glenn Gould’s 1955 piano recording has shown for all time, the Goldberg Variations can never again be heard intelligently on the harpsichord — unless, like the good Count Kayserling, one requires music as a soporific. And like that epochal recording, Christopher Taylor’s superb performance last night omitted the repeats. Some of his tempi were expressively slow compared with what others might have used; variations 2, 6, and 7 included detached articulation that was at once revealing and charming; variation 10 (Fughetta) was both forte and pesante; these and other flexibilities added up to an intense, vivid performance that was a pleasure at every moment. Taylor used a different ornamentation in the da capo Aria from the one he used at the beginning; for instance, the broken chord on the downbeat of m11 was arpeggiated upward at the beginning and downward after variation 30, and this was welcome. I had worried that the huge technical demands of the hourlong Rzewski variations would have told on Taylor’s stamina in the Bach, and there were one or two brief memory lapses, in variations 13 and 20, not more than a second or two, which hardly mattered; technical mastery was complete throughout, and even more important the understanding. Above all, the performance was melodically expressive without a trace of Romantic excess, what one most wants to hear.

The Goldberg Variations are a touchstone in the history of variation form, from the Spanish Renaissance lutenists to the present day; one might say that for our own time, Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, the best known of his several — and ongoing — works in variation form, constitute a touchdown. Perhaps not everyone relished assault from the big Rzewski work for the first time, and it was brave to program the works together. But there’s no denying that it was successful. We will continue to expect such adventurousness from Christopher Taylor, who is one of the most interesting pianists anywhere these days.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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