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The Chopin in Alexandre Tharaud's Head

available at Amazon
Chopin, Journal intime, A. Tharaud

(released on January 12, 2010)
Virgin Classics 50999 6855652 5
It is well known that Alexandre Tharaud is an Ionarts favorite, and we have written warmly of just about every recording or concert of his to reach our ears, which led me to list him as one of the best overall performers of the first decade of this millennium. He will be returning to the Washington area next month, for a couple of concerts that we hope to review: with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras at the Library of Congress (March 12, 8 pm) and again at the Baltimore Museum of Art (March 13, 3 pm), programs drawing on their Debussy-Poulenc and Schubert recordings together. In some ways, Tharaud is the opposite of Maurizio Pollini, who seems drawn to the largest, most demanding works by this composer, his performances of the smaller pieces seeming not to have fully engaged his technical imagination. Tharaud excels at finely tooled rendition of the miniatures, etching a remarkable level of detail into a small space: his cycle of the Chopin Preludes, in concert and on disc, was magnificently gloomy, and his disc of the waltzes noteworthy for its introspective, lonely quality.

So Tharaud's new Chopin disc, scheduled by Virgin just in time for the composer's 200th birthday celebrations on March 1, plays to his strengths, by selecting largely from the smaller piano pieces, chosen because of the memories they evoked in Tharaud's mind. He does beautiful things with the fragile melodies and delicious harmonies of several mazurkas and nocturnes, as well as the folksy impressions of the snappier écossaises (op. 72) and the dreamy contredanse in B♭ major. With the more demanding pieces on this album, he makes one hear new things in many passages with his choice of voicing or rubato fluctuation. However, as noted before, Tharaud's formidable and easy technique is not without its limits, and the most demanding passages (like the final section of the G minor ballade) do not take your breath away. (My overall preference among living Chopin pianists, of those one is likely to hear anyway, is Evgeny Kissin, who excels at the melancholy little works and has unassailable technique in the showpieces.) For this reason and because Tharaud does not include his signature type of "encore" work, an évocation of Chopin by another composer (why not the Chopin movement from Carnaval by Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday will also be celebrated this year, on June 8?), for example, this disc is still recommended but not with the highest marks.

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