JENNIFER TAO, PIANO
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE: May/June 1999
Beethoven: Piano Sonata 21
Chopin: Ballade I
Ives: The Alcotts
Liszt: Au lac de Wallenstadt
Medtner: Fairy Tale in B-flat minor;
Ravel: Alborada del Gracioso
Scarlatti: Piano Sonata in D, L 164
Eroica 3015 (Jem) 58 minutes
Although I’m inclined to admire any artist who shares jacket-photo spread with a cat, Jennifer Tao has more than exemplary taste in furry friends to commend her. This is evident immediately from the Medtner that opens the disc and impresses with Tao’s febrile and persuasive sense of rubato. Her tone is rich and unforced, with chordings that pile up sonorously in climactic passages.
The Beethoven leaves a more equivocal impression, its opening ostinato uncertain and skittish. Though Tao’s fingerwork is generally fleet, the exposition unfolds in episodic and percussive fashion. The development section is more engaging, as the central motive cell chases its tail through the piano’s registers, building to an exciting, propulsive coda. The laconic slow movement unfolds fitfully, in short-breathed phrases. The finale does flow confidently and with a sense of grand design. The principal theme chimes brightly in Tao’s right hand, augmented with runs and trills, the sonata finishing in a charming scamper. It’s all rather "Waldstein meets Flight of the Bumblebee" but quite exciting.
The Concord Sonata extract doesn’t lack for intensity, but one does miss the deep, legato stroke of Gilbert Kalish (Nonesuch). Also, in Tao’s hands, the reiterations of the motto from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—an Ivesian idee fixe—emerge with more clangor than majesty.
The square accentuation of the Scarlatti is partly redeemed by Tao’s crystalline trills and voice-leadings, while the Ravel moves forward with a jagged, impatient undertow (which I like) and big washes of color. Liszt’s ‘Wallenstadt Lake’, scene of lotus-eating dalliances with Marie D’Agoult, laps beguilingly in Tao’s left hand. If the statement of the main theme is unromantically matter-of-fact, it subsides meltingly into the coda.
Romanticism of the upper-case sort seems to be Tao’s bag, judging from the febrility that also marks her reading of the Chopin, particularly evident in the quiet passion of the B section. This erupts into volleys of runs, then manic accelerandos and a provocatively crazed reprise of the Ballade’s waltz tune. Ending with descending octaves of crushing finality, the coda owns the desperation that Chopin’s music demands.