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Queyras and Tharaud at the LoC

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Debussy / Poulenc

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Online scores:
Debussy, Cello sonata | Schubert, Sonata for Arpeggione, Moments musicaux | Webern, Drei kleine Stücke
When you hear and evaluate many concerts, the excellent ones stand out from the fair, good, and even very good ones in an almost self-evident way. Not much more needs to be said about Friday night's recital by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud at the Library of Congress, other than that it rises to the top of concerts heard by these ears so far this year. As Queyras mentioned in his recent interview with our own Jens Laurson, he and Tharaud were thrown together more or less haphazardly, because they were represented by the same agency. This is extraordinarily good luck because their natural and collaborative rapport makes it seem at times like they were born to play together. The French first half opened with two of the shorter Poulenc pieces from their Debussy and Poulenc disc. The Sérénade from Chansons gaillardes warmed the room, the luscious legato of Queyras's singing cello supported by the often self-effacing Tharaud.

More jagged edges followed in the Suite française, in which Poulenc transformed 16th-century music by Claude Gervaise into elegant dances, alternatively square-footed and graceful, and a strange, half-muted Complainte. Tharaud's savvy way with early music, attributed by him to an appreciation of historically informed performance ensembles, showed through here. The half concluded with Debussy's cello sonata, one of the composer's late, masterful instrumental works -- paired on the CD with Poulenc's cello sonata, alas not heard on this program. The Debussy sonata is a beautiful, autumnal piece, solemn and wistful but also wild and playful, with hints of earlier works: the repeated low Cs and other parts of La cathédrale engloutie (first movement), Minstrels and Golliwog's Cakewalk (second movement). The temptation is to let the loud, rollicking parts roll, but Queyras and Tharaud wisely never overplayed the room, aware of the superb acoustic of Mrs. Coolidge's auditorium.

An Austrian second half did not fall quite as perfectly into place. Schubert's "Arpeggione" sonata, D. 821, profited most from the freer flowing melodic sense of Queyras's playing, even though in the last movement his left hand, perhaps tiring, had some intonation misses. It was an ingenious idea to introduce the work with the pointillistic miniatures of Anton Webern's Drei kleine Stücke, op. 11, played without warning in continuity with the Schubert, so that the capacity audience applauded after the first movement of the "Arpeggione" (one could not possibly mistake Schubert for Webern, or could one?). Half-formed thoughts were tangled in a quiet mass in the first movement, followed by a clot of more violent phrases in the second and an expressionistic wash of colors in the third. Listening to this music, played with disarming beauty, one was reminded of Queyras's comments in his interview with Jens that he plays modern music not out of a sense of duty but because it appeals like any other music.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, French spirit prevails in cello-piano recital (Washington Post, March 15)

Allan Kozinn, Muscular Renditions of Bach, Schubert and Debussy (New York Times, March 8)
A set of three Moments musicaux, D. 780, should have been in the same mold as Tharaud's recording of the Chopin waltzes, but for some reason Tharaud did not find the same kind of guileless simplicity or coloristic variety. Only no. 6 (A♭ major) achieved that fleeting, pastel transparency, while nos. 1 and 2 seemed glossed over, as if the music did not much engage Tharaud's interest. Queyras's solo turn on the first half, Henri Dutilleux's Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, was much more absorbing, ranging from a guitar-like serenade in the first movement ("Un poco indecision" [sic] it read in the program -- a rare spellcheck-induced error for the Library of Congress, to go along with the misspelling of the cellist's name, "Jean-Guien Queyras," on the cover) to the frenetic third movement with its precariously high writing on the A string. A single encore, Gregor Piatigorsky's arrangement of a Haydn Allegro di molto movement, concluded the evening on an impressive technical flourish.

The next concert in the series at the Library of Congress will feature Voces Intimae, a fortepiano trio that will perform music by Hummel, Mozart, and Schubert (March 26, 8 pm).


David Boxwell said...

Okay--who was the bronchial @#$% who barked like a seal during the final ppppassages of the Webern?

A great recital, but one too good for that audience.

Charles T. Downey said...

Hahaha -- yes, I noted that, too. It struck me as a sort of passive-aggressive protest at having to listen to Webern, which is most unusual for a Library of Congress audience.

Also, ushers at the Library of Congress (and everywhere else, for that matter), if you see anyone try to enter the theater with one of those rustling plastic bags, please turn them away. A grateful audience thanks you.

Anonymous said...

What was the typo in the cellist's name? You rendered it the same as elsewhere in the post.

Charles T. Downey said...

"Jean-Guien" instead of "Jean-Guihen." It was spelled correctly throughout the rest of the program, so it's just a typo. No big deal, just kind of surprising for the LoC.

Anonymous said...

There was an additional typo on the extra piece of paper stuffed in the program with the small text informing us how much paper the library is saving these days...

And the cougher obscured the final moments of the Webern, causing most of the audience to miss the moment to applaud (aside from a few brave souls down near the stage), and causing the performers to launch into the Schubert, which then ended so strongly that the by now confused audience felt they had to applaud something...

The Dutilleux was the high point for me. The Webern was great, too, until the barking began. Overall, the first half was much stronger, making up for the somewhat weirder second half. And I agree, it was a very good concert, if one overlooks those little odd moments...