Two recent piano performances

Christopher Taylor at Mackey Jan. 23
Larry Graham at Boulder Public Library Jan. 31

| Feb 8, 2010

Larry Graham began the program notes for his generally estimable all-Chopin recital at the Boulder Public Library Sunday, Jan. 31, thus: “Among musicians, in general, Chopin is rarely ranked in the top echelon of composers.” Of course, he then went on to explain why this is wrong.

Larry Graham

Larry Graham

As I posted a while ago, this anxiety about Chopin’s status among pianists is strange. Perhaps pianists are just wary of other musicians’ jealousy. What other instrument has such a vast solo repertory? What other instrumentalists have, at least historically, risen to such international acclaim? And made so much money? Perhaps they think we’re just narcissists?

In any case Chopin is pretty much all solo piano, and Graham’s polished technique and splendid sound more than made the case for him. The program was ambitious and perhaps unreasonably long. The first half consisted of 10 short works: five Mazurkas, a Waltz, the A-flat Polonaise, two Etudes and a Nocturne, seven being dance forms. The second half was the four Ballades.

Graham was suffering from some sort of injury to his left hand and had problems with a band-aid. This probably accounted for some small technical lapses. Interestingly, the most demanding passages – e.g., the coda from the 4th Ballade – were handled with great security. The second Ballade was especially fine.

Graham’s sound is remarkably integrated across all the registers. A student of Rosina Lhevinne (she who won the Gold Medal in piano when she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1898), Larry Graham is an exponent of the finest traditions of what some call the golden age of pianism.

Christopher Taylor at sold-out Macky

A week earlier, Christopher Taylor, an actual Boulder native, had returned to play the Brahms D-Minor Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic. Taylor is, I think, more active on the concert stage than Graham. They’re very different, although it’s hard to explain how. One might think of Graham as a tenor and Taylor as a baritone, if that makes any sense.

Christopher Taylor

Christopher Taylor

The Brahms is a monumental dialogue between piano and orchestra with thunder, lightning and moments of lyrical introspection, all of which Taylor dispatched with great dynamic range and complete technical command. The Boulder Philharmonic is about as good as one might expect from a small town, semi-professional orchestra, and Taylor’s concentration in the face of some of their problems was remarkable.

This is the third time I’ve heard him and I’m more impressed each time.

The rest of the program consisted of a dispiritingly bad performance of the 3rd Brandenburg which cruelly exposed the intonation problems of the strings. Perhaps music director Michael Butterman thought the extra rehearsal time for the section warranted the pain. Next came a tortured reading of Beethoven’s Fifth.

If marketing really required a “Three Bs” evening, we, and the musicians, would have been better served with one of the smaller Beethoven symphonies. Still, Macky was completely sold out.

It should be said that the woodwinds acquitted themselves very well all evening, at no time better than during the beautiful slow movement of the concerto.

Martin Fritter blogs about music at Sounds Past and Future, where this article also appeared.