Christopher Taylor is a concert showman of virtuosic excess. At the last solo recital he gave in Washington, in 2009, he played on a special two-manual Steinway for double the effect. This time around, on Sunday evening at Dumbarton Oaks, he had only a single keyboard, but in many ways he seemed to strive for sounds that were more massive and more complicated than the instrument could achieve.
The high point was a bombastic rendition of the first opus of Johannes Brahms, one of the early piano sonatas that many pianists avoid in favor of the composer’s later variations and character pieces. Taking the first movement on the slow side, Taylor made a strong case for the piece, especially its smoldering second theme, tender in a guarded, Brahmsian way. The second movement, an arrangement with variations of the German song “Verstohlen geht der Mond auf,” was enigmatic, and Taylor squeezed as much sound and force as he could out of the frenetic scherzo. This had the unfortunate effect of not leaving any more room for the wild finale, since he had already hit the sound ceiling of the instrument and the museum’s small Music Room.
Scriabin’s Op. 8 etudes are also youthful works, written before the composer’s music took a turn for the weird. Taylor had most of the technical challenges in hand, although he seemed to falter somewhat in the fifth piece, and the endless parallel sixths (No. 6) and parallel thirds (No. 10) were labored. Least pleasing was the opening Bach work, the first French suite, best in the slow sarabande and second minuet, where he added complex embellishments on the repeats. Slowing down the gigue and hammering its dotted motifs made what should have been a light-footed dance into something oddly sinister.
Downey is a freelance writer.