For his Great Performers in Recital appearance at Tanglewood (which premiered 15th August and is available to stream through the 21st), Conrad Tao put together a program of great feeling with no overt thematic thread but a strong emotional one, suggesting a sort of neo-impressionism while reaching back to the moodiest of the Romantics. He artfully aligned living composers (including a short work by the pianist himself) with works from the early 19th and early 20th centuries into a coherent statement.

Conrad Tao © Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conrad Tao
© Boston Symphony Orchestra

The program began with a work by the Brazilian composer Felipe Lara, commissioned by the pianist in 2016. Injust Intonations carries the hashtagged subtitle #BlackLivesMatter, but Tao played it as a statement, not an exclamation. It was contemporary in its multi-directionality but with atmospheric phrases reminiscent of Debussy, seeming to go nowhere and taking many paths to get there. It was in that regard markedly different from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s fleeting Piano Study in mixed accents, which Tao launched into immediately after, with barely a moment’s pause. 

Crawford wrote three versions of her Study, using the same notation, without bar lines but with different dynamics. Tao returned to the piece, later in the program, reversing the dynamic (ff / pp / ff, pp / ff / pp) in the two readings. He followed that with his own remarkably delicate all I had forgotten or tried to, the title taken from a Kevin Killian short story. A compelling six-note theme recurred every few minutes, first muted, then more pronounced, then fully resonant, with a scattering of notes falling like snow around a scurrying animal. The Cuban composer Tania León’s 1987 Ritual broke the lack of stride. It was something of a march, not in steady rhythm but more strident, unexpectedly volatile even by the end, and just as unexpectedly resolving in a firm few notes. 

There was a lot of emotion, and a lot of truly lovely playing, leading up to Beethoven's D minor Piano Sonata which was given a reading so surprising that it tied the global, centuries-spanning narrative together in a way that could not have been anticipated. Tao gave it great drama with prolonged pauses and exaggerated shifts, somehow dramatic but seamless, between cold, rigid pronouncements and lush legatos. He imbued in the piece all of the preceding moods, giving the water and the fire their due. 

The recital ended with David Lang’s wed, taken from his Memory Pieces. The piece was written for the conceptual artist Kate Ericson, who at 39 married her partner on her deathbed. The piece, Tao said, depicts “unimaginable joy mixed with total despair.” It began in a music box simplicity but little dissonances made their way in. Here we weren’t faced with the preceding mood swings, but everything at once, a gorgeous emotional complexity. Tao seemed at his most beholden to the notes here, in the brief piece, as if reluctant to impose anything on the purity of the piece. 

Tao is a remarkable pianist and showed himself here (and again) to be an insightful programmer as well. The rush of the Seeger, the ascendency of León the impossibly mixed emotions in Lang and the fragility in his own composition made for a stunning hour.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.