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Tic, Toc, Choc

Alexandre Tharaud:
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Rameau suites

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Bach Italian concertos

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Chopin waltzes
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Tic toc choc, Alexandre Tharaud
(released May 8, 2007)
As previewed last month, Harmonia Mundi has released a new Couperin CD by pianist Alexandre Tharaud. We have reviewed several of this French pianist's recordings -- Chopin, Rameau, Bach (and the complete Ravel set forthcoming). His recordings have been in the No. 1 spot on Jens's survey of the year's best recordings in both 2005 and 2006. One of many things that make Tharaud's playing so exciting is his informed approach to Baroque music, even though he always plays on a modern instrument. In the liner notes of his superb Rameau CD, Tharaud wrote, "It's obvious that today, after the phenomenal work of many musicologists and of musicians like William Christie, Christophe Rousset, Scott Ross, and Olivier Baumont, we play Rameau with a much more profound sense of the style. [...] I no longer play Bach and Scarlatti in the same way as before. I think that nowadays it's essential for a pianist to immerse himself in Baroque music." These are words that make this baroqueux musicologist's heart sing.

Angela Hewitt:
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Couperin 1

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Couperin 2

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Couperin 3
Since that 2002 Rameau disc, Tharaud has continued to play Baroque music, and not just Bach, in recital while planning his next Baroque recording. The kernel of the program of this disc, devoted to the music of François Couperin (1668-1733), was a piece Tharaud has played often as an encore, Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Maillotins from the 18e Ordre, which gave him the theme of playfulness. Using that work "as the centerpiece," Tharaud writes in the liner notes, he "gathered together some of Couperin's most 'pianistic' pieces, underlining the playful aspect of some of them, such as Les Tours de Passe-passe and Les Calotines." The selections, drawn from all over the four books of Pièces de clavecin that Couperin published later in life, are in no particular order. Only a few of the 27 ordres, or suites, have more than one piece selected, and those are not paired together.

Couperin on Harpsichord:
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Olivier Baumont

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Christophe Rousset

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Gustav Leonhardt

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William Christie and Christophe Rousset
Tharaud's process seems to have been to select the pieces with the most pianistic possibilities and adapt them, almost recompose some of them, albeit with great sensitivity. The results are less true to the score than Angela Hewitt's marvelous recordings: her 3-CD set is also not complete but is arranged in three exquisite volumes with each complete or incomplete ordre generally kept together. The uniformity of the Hewitt recordings, cut from the same sublime cloth, is contrasted by Tharaud's chasse aux couleurs, a greater contrast of sound made possible by a freer use of the sustaining pedal and a willingness to stray from the score. Where Hewitt's reading, the only comparable choice for Couperin on the piano, is gentle, tastefully embellished, and rhythmically propelled, Tharaud is angular, at times frenetic, spirituel, perhaps a little over the edge. There is a definite sense of Tharaud's connection to Le Tic-Toc-Choc as an encore piece.

Les ombres errantes, the last piece in the 25e Ordre, is a good example. Hewitt's shadows wander mutely in a murky twilight, hands reaching out timidly to find something familiar to guide their way, while Tharaud's are more erratic, with stronger voicings that cause lines to ping out against one another. It is the same theatrical leaning that comes out in Tharaud's jagged Tricoteuses (Knitting ladies) and his wistful Carillon de Cithère (Carillon of Cythera, the soundtrack of Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera) with its softly clanging, quasi-obsessive A bell.

Tharaud adapted Musète de Taverni, an evocation of rustic bagpipes notated by Couperin for five hands, by layering his own recording over himself. In a similar way, the Bruit de guerre from La Triomphante is augmented with the sound of a drum, played by Pablo Pico. These playful interpretations are in line with the spirit found in the works selected by Tharaud, many of which are named for games (Tours de passe-passe, or sleights of hand, and Les Maillotins, or rope-dancers) or require the performer's hands to make a playful show of dexterity, especially in hand crossing or inter-manual exchange (difficult, but not impossible, to reproduce on the piano). Appropriately, the world of childhood is evoked by other movements, like the hypnotically beautiful Le Dodo ou l'Amour du berceau (Nighty-night, or Cradle's love), indicated by Couperin to be at the tempo of a cradle song.

As Tharaud did on his Rameau CD, which ended with Debussy's Homage à Rameau, he concludes this Couperin disc with a piece by another composer, Jacques Duphly's La Pothoïn. While not expressly a tribute to Couperin, it was composed at a time when the fortepiano was supplanting the harpsichord, and Tharaud observes quite correctly in his liner note comment that Duphly seems to be looking backward to the golden age of French harpsichord music, represented by the four books published by Couperin.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901956

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