Alexandre Tharaud's top-notch recordings of Bach, Couperin, and Rameau might make you think that this French pianist is a Baroque specialist. Add to this music of the 18th century a stunning complete Ravel recording (as yet unreviewed, only out of laziness), an extraordinary, understated set of Chopin waltzes, and as yet unheard, a complete Poulenc chamber music set and a Milhaud disc, in collaboration with the composer's widow. This is not to mention his duo recordings with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and a number of earlier discs harder to come by in the U.S. We hope, perhaps unrealistically, that Tharaud will make a recording of the original piano-only version of Pelléas et Mélisande, which he played at the Musée d'Orsay in 2004. Tharaud's twice-postponed return to Washington, promised by La Maison Française (the cultural attaché, Roland Celette, assures me that he is working on it), will eventually allow me to atone for missing his 2005 WPAS recital.
F. Chopin, Preludes / F. Mompou, Alexandre Tharaud
(released March 11, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901982
Scores: Chopin's First Editions Online
For the time being, this new Chopin recording will have to suffice. This program, no less inventive than Tharaud's previous ones, is centered on the op. 28 preludes, mostly conceived during Chopin's fatal trip to Majorca. Schumann described these quasi-fragmentary pieces as "sketches" or "ruins" of more fully developed etudes. The ambiguous name chosen for them (preludes to what?) gives the impression of paired major-minor improvisations that lead only to each other, in an endless cycle of fifths always circling back on itself. Tharaud writes in the notes about how he sees the Preludes only as a set, and that comes across, for example, by the way he takes no. 22 attacca from the end of no. 21. The most curious point to my ears in the cycle's continuity is the cadence on an F dominant seventh chord at the end of no. 23, setting up not B-flat but no. 24 in D minor.
In the liner notes, Tharaud describes the set as "shot through with violence and death," restless with a sense of fear even in the most serene movements. The doom of mortality reaches its most overt expression in no. 14 (E-flat minor), which Tharaud plays like a deathly shudder. Uneasy echoes resonate in the booming bass pedal point of no. 17 (A-flat), the low fz notes phrased in a hairpin over the concluding minute, as the other voices float above, disembodied. The only, very minor reservation about Tharaud's pianism is that his technical mastery weakens just a bit in the most demanding passages. Yes, no. 16 (B-flat) is appropriately on fire and in no. 24 (D minor), he produces electric and impassioned shrieking runs up and down the keyboard (marked con brio, con impeto, impetuoso, con audacia, brillante -- [ridiculously, by some later editor -- Ed.]). It is only with comparison to other slightly more flawless performances that one even notices (as with Tharaud's rendition of Couperin's Tic Toc Choc -- with hip-hop video -- compared to the just slightly more technically mind-blowing Grigory Sokolov).
Some of Tharaud's choices are unpredictable, which is one of the qualities that makes listening to his playing so rewarding. The fff final chords of no. 18 (F minor) are attacked like vicious axe-strokes, and he treats the opening anacrusis of no. 7 (A major) as if it had an unseen fermata over it. Although in no. 15 (D-flat), Tharaud wisely avoids all sentimentality, it's not clear he really observes the midpoint Poco più animato marking at all [Probably because it is not in the first edition -- Ed.], but he does bring out a detail unnoticed before, in measure 17, where he has the top of his left hand echo the right-hand motif in the previous measure.
Alexandre Tharaud, pianist
Tharaud has rounded out his op. 28, clocking in at just over 38 minutes, with five other similar works by Chopin, the op. 45 prelude, the A-flat major Petit Prélude, and the Trois Nouvelles Etudes ("which one can well imagine Chopin might have called 'Preludes'," Tharaud writes in the booklet). Finally, as he has done to brilliant effect on his other solo discs, he has added a later composer's tribute to the program's subject. Here, as on his Chopin waltz CD, it is music by Federico Mompou (1893-1987), all of it worth knowing, especially in this context. The melody of op. 28, no. 4, is the basis for Música callada no. 15, and Chopin is the obvious model for Mompou's preludes, of which Tharaud selects no. 9. A more extended Mompou prelude, El Lago (The lake), concludes the disc, which Tharaud often plays as an encore to op. 28 in concert. "Whenever I do," he writes, "I'm always struck by the quality of silence in the audience."