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Marathon Might

November 6, 2005

Christopher Taylor

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We Appreciate

By Jerry Kuderna

Best known for his contribution of Atmosphères and Lux Aeterna for Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, Gyorgi Ligeti was exciting then and he still is. In the new century he is putting adventurous pianists into orbit with a growing family of etudes that should come with a warning: “risk of repetitive stress or tendinitis — we take no responsibility for any injuries sustained. Practice responsibly.”

To tackle any one of the three sets of Ligeti etudes is a daunting project. Christopher Taylor made his Berkeley debut on Sunday at Hertz Hall with a phenomenal performance of all three books, comprising a total of 18 pieces, the first set of six from memory. To say that it was an exciting afternoon would not do it justice. Adrenaline-soaked kick-ass pianoplaying might be a better description: Taylor's take-no-prisoners style served 8-fold fortissimo (ffffffff) demanded by the composer at numerous points. This seemed to skew the dynamics toward that loud end, despite the inclusion of extremely soft markings. I sometimes wished for more dynamic contrast between the voices. Indeed viewing the inflated dynamics in the score (for bigger and more powerful pianos, or pianists?) made me wonder how Beethoven and Brahms managed to get by with mere pp-ff. Or Bach, who required none.

Taylor wisely choose to begin quietly (at least the music was quiet — the piano bench was not) with the most recent studies from Book III (1995-2001). They are perhaps the simplest ones and for me the most endearing. Taylor captured the floating beauty of the diatonic canons in “White on White” exquisitely. The two faster studies that complete the set were also based on canonic structures but were not heard as such. The setting of imitating voices very close together was slightly out of phase, not true canons as we think of them in, say, the works of Bach. They were indeed “Out of Breath” in the third etude, following on each other one beat apart. There, Taylor gave us a thrilling chase. The ending of the final piece, simply called “Canon,” is an enigma, seeming to float above the faster and more mechanical rhythms that preceded it. Taylor provided just the right contrast of sound and mood here.

Pushing the limits

Book II consists of eight pieces, each with a title that suggests the exotic or visually descriptive. “Galam borong” is a barline-defying trip into the upper reaches of the keyboard, its swirling passages marked by irregular chords in both hands. Taylor managed to show the independence of both his hands to great effect throughout the recital. Later in the set, notably in “Vertigo” and “Infinite Column,” each hand would continue its intricate pattern above or below the other, as if each led a life of its own. This was confusing visually, but what looked awkward seemed perfectly obvious and effortless when one listened with eyes closed. In the infernal dance called “The Devil's Staircase,” constantly shifting cross-accents replace the barlines, generating near hysteria as the music careens toward its climax. At its highest point, Ligeti evokes an immense clangor of bells, and they manage finally to halt the onslaught of sound. Through it all, Taylor seemed supremely confident, even as he pulled off the longest fermata on record before an audience that was on the verge of enthusiastic applause. As the sound died away I tried to imagine how the final etude could be anything but an anticlimax. Ligeti's way around it was to follow it with a piece that “could be played by a player piano if necessary.”

Ligeti does seem intent on posing pianistic challenges never seen, or even dreamed of, by pianists raised on Chopin and Debussy. He is related to those composers in the sense that he is setting musical problems before the strictly mechanical ones for the pianist. Several of them have multiple key signatures, such as “En Suspens,” the single slow study from Book II. I found that the slow bluesy studies contained much more of musical interest than the viscerally exciting perpetual motion pieces, which tended to exhaust this listener. I have to make one exception: the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Book II knocks me out every time I hear it. It sounds like great fun to play and the way the voices seem to multiply under the pianist's fingers is just as evocative as what Mr. Dukas did a century earlier.

There is diabolical pleasure when music takes the performer to the edge, as well as the clutch of fear that it is all about to go completely haywire. I almost wish it had once, if only to banish the unnerving feeling that the piano was in fact playing itself — surely the supreme accomplishment for any piano, if not any pianist. In any case, it is the beguiling, if illusory, sense of serenity of "Pour Irina," the second etude on the program, that haunts me now as I recall an afternoon of dazzling pianism.

(Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who teaches at Diablo Valley College.)

©2005 Jerry Kuderna, all rights reserved