Christopher Taylor will play J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on a Steinway like no other — a piano with two keyboards — on Friday, May 3.
“It is extremely rare. Steinway only built one,” Taylor said in a phone interview from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he is on the faculty.
The idea of a two-keyboard piano was promoted by Emánuel Moór (1863–1931), a now relatively obscure Hungarian composer, pianist, and inventor. Moór was well aware that many organs have dual-manuals (or keyboards), and some harpsichords also had dual-manuals — J.S. Bach wrote the “Goldberg Variations” with a dual-manual harpsichord specifically in mind. The second keyboard makes the “Goldberg Variations” easier to play, since doing the piece on a single keyboard involves complex (and sometimes hand-tangling) crossover moves.
“Moór was inspired by the example of harpsichords and organs, and thought that pianists should be in on the act,” Taylor said. And Moór must have been persuasive, because he convinced Steinway to build the special piano for him in 1929.
The lower manual has the standard 88 keys, the upper manual has only 76. ”The instrument also has a fourth (foot) pedal,” Taylor added, “so that if you strike one key on the lower keyboard, you get the octave higher note at the same time. Two hammers fire at the same time. But as far as tuning it is concerned, it is just like an ordinary piano — a normal set of strings. If you only looked at the instrument behind the keyboard, you might not think it is unusual.” But from the front, with the two keyboards, it is unique within the Steinway realm.
Having two keyboards means that “if you are smart, and you put your thumb on the lower keyboard and the pinkie finger on the upper keyboard, you can get these huge intervals that are impossible on a regular instrument — you can get organ-like sonorities,” Taylor said.
Moór’s unusual design had admirers — among them the composer Maurice Ravel, pianist Alfred Cortot and critic Donald Tovey. Several other piano makers took up the design, including Bösendorfer (which made an instrument now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
But in the end, 0nly around 60 dual-manual pianos were made. But Moór’s widow, Winifred Christie, continued to evangelize on behalf of her husband’s design after his death. Among her converts was pianist Gunnar Johansen, who joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 1939 — Johansen actually owned two dual-manual instruments (the Steinway, and a Bösendorfer). Johansen passed away in 1991, and eventually his widow donated the Steinway to the university.
That’s when Taylor got involved. By then, the instrument needed service. “We sent it to Steinway in New York and they wrestled with it for about a year,” Taylor said. “No one in the factory had seen anything like it, and there were no blueprints left from the 1920s.”
Once the piano had been rejuvenated, Taylor began giving performances of the “Goldberg Variations” using the dual-manual instrument, after rethinking the way he played the piece to take advantage of the second keyboard.
Reviewing a 2007 performance, Bernard Holland of the New York Times observed “Playing this music on one keyboard is like tap dancing in a closet. There is not enough room… Two keyboards give Mr. Taylor’s hands space to maneuver… the mouths of pianists in the audience must have been watering.”
The piano travels with Taylor whenever he does the “Goldbergs.”
“It goes on a truck, and arrives a couple of days before the concert,” Taylor said.
Local music lovers with good memories may recall that Taylor’s visit in December 2008 — he played Olivier Messiaen’s monumental “Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus” in Mondavi’s Vanderhoef Studio Theater. That muscular performance made such heavy demands on the piano that a technician came out during intermission and retuned the (single keyboard) Steinway Taylor played on that occasion. Taylor said the “Goldbergs” are “definitely less brutal on the instrument, Bach doesn’t use the extremes of the instrument’s range the way Messiaen does. The keyboard was shorter in Bach’s day. But the Bach is a hefty piece of music, intense and dense. It requires concentration, and some endurance on the performer’s part.”
The May 3 concert will be at 8 p.m. in Jackson Hall. Tickets are $35-$58 general, $17.50-$29 students, www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787. There will be a pre-concert presentation at 7 p.m. with Taylor in conversation with Jeremy Ganter, the Mondavi Center’s associate executive director.