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Original and Happy Freaks: Alexandre Tharaud’s Scarlatti

Greatness in an artist, a pianist, is a rummy thing. In a variation on Potter Stewart’s pornography dictum: it’s easier to hear than to define. Especially when a pianist, Alexandre Tharaud, finds greatness in smallness: He’s a master of miniatures; a virtuoso of vignettes. Greatness in a pianist like Wilhelm Backhauslies in the great calm, the stoic unfussiness in which long lines or piled-on heroism are played, in the resistance to bending even one phrase for effect if the effect on the whole isn’t productive. Greatness in the results of Alexandre Tharaud (in any case a musician who would recoil from having that word being applied to him), lies in the innately-judicious, instinctive application of wit, exaggeration, whimsy, playfulness, tenderness, and the like. Much of that has to do with the repertoire, of course: What makes a Bach Sicilienne or a bit by Couperin brilliant may not work for a Brahms Sonata—and that which lifts a Hammerklavier Sonata to a new plane may in turn be insufficient to inspire the “original and happy freaks”, to use Charles Burney’s coyly sublime description of the Scarlatti Sonatas. Greatness, ultimately lies in getting it just right for the piece being played, in the moment one is playing it.

Sonata Kk.431 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

available at AmazonD.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas, A.Tharaud
A little less than a year ago I attended a recital of Alexandre Tharaud at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and by the time he made it through Schubert (the Sixth of the 6 Moments Musicaux D.780 played gorgeously, tenderly, like a letter to a long-time, older friend) and Chopin (a confident, delicately muscular E-flat Nocturne, an enthralling Fantaisie-Impromptu, a particularly delicious Ballade No.1), and he arrived at the encores, there came to the fore that greatness in the small: Bach. Chopin. Rameau. Chopin again. Then Couperin’sTic-Toc-Choc, ous Les Maillotins—his quintessential encore piece. Then, still, the crowd wanted more and he brought out Bach again. By this time I was thinking that if his next five albums for Virgin Classics were all Scarlatti, I would be a very happy man. Sure enough, his (reluctant) seventh encore was Scarlatti. And later I received better news, still: His next album—one, if not five—would be of Scarlatti. And there was much rejoicing.

Tharaud now records for Virgin Classics, after many wildly successful discs for Harmonia Mundi, a move that initially surprised the people at Virgin even more than me. “I have been friends with Alexandre for a long time, but I would have never asked or suggested he come over to our label” assures Alain Lançeron—the Parisian head of Virgin Classics—believably. “When he called me [back then] and said he needed to talk immediately, I thought about anything—maybe medical problems, who knows. But not that he would want to join Virgin. In fact, I fought for Harmonia Mundi, because I can’t help to take the side of an artists’ label. But he wanted to join us, so in the end of course I was happy to welcome him to the Virgin family.” Very happy, indeed, I would think—along with the Quatuor Ébèneand Philippe Jaroussky and a few other judiciously chosen artists, he’s a musical crown jewel in their lineup that lifts the whole EMI/Virgin Classics brand in the eyes and ears of every connoisseur.

After his Virgin-debut, an amiable disc of Chopin which I enjoyed without being ‘wowed’ by it, we now get Scarlatti—due out on the 8th of March. At the very least since Horowitz recorded Scarlatti sonatas, Scarlatti-on-the-piano recordings have become commonplace and the field ever more competitive with several pianists—often the more extroverted ones—finding their best in these short pieces: Even his greatest detractors won’t deny the success of Pogorelich’s recording. Christian Zacharias made a name for himself not the least with his Scarlatti on EMI (just boxed and re-released)—and continues to record more of it on MDG. Naxos had a wonderful idea of sourcing the 555+ sonatas out to a different pianist for each disc they add to their continuing survey, most of which is prime stuff. My very favorite, finally, is the two disc set of Mikhail Pletnev (Virgin Classics); one of my over all favorite CDs—perhaps the disc I’ve listened more often to than any other. That’s strong competition, but Tharaud sweeps aside any notion of competition. Not on ‘superiority’, if there were such a thing, but on account of how the recording exudes and oozes so much personality.

In person, Tharaud appears a friendly, weary, incredibly gentle and soft-spoken musician. A pale young man, the lines on whose boyish face betray his real age (42), he comes across as someone who needs to avoid conflict and agitation… he even seems fragile, bordering frail: A type that must immediately kindle the mother-hen instinct in any remotely sensitive person. Sometimes that comes through in his playing—in that utmost sensitive take of the D-minor Sonata Kk.32, for example. [See sample below, compared to the same sonata played on the harpsichord by Scott Ross (Warner).]

Sonata Kk.32 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

Sonata Kk.32 (excerpt), Scott Ross

But it would be a mistake to think that Tharaud, for whatever his occasional lyrical indulgence or personal impression, is a sentimental pianist. Most of the time, he’s anything but. In fact, he seems to grow a whole set of different, colorful personalities while at the keyboard. Among them some that are bold, devil-may-care colors such as can be heard in the vigorous, punctuated, insanely fast D-major Sonata Kk.29 where he so abruptly treats pedals and keys that the piano’s action goes “Rrrrrrrrrroommmpff!” at one point. [Sample below.] Kk.3 (A-minor) receives a similar, brusque treatment—as if the sonata was tumbling down a flight of stairs. Or listen to his stupendous touch comes to the fore nicely in Kk.132 (in C-Major), where the high notes beckon like little bells. [Sample below.]

Sonata Kk.29 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

Sonata Kk.132 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

That he cares about every note he plays is well demonstrated by another D-minor Sonata, Kk.64. On the surface a straightforward firecracker that one might play faster or slower, more or less abrupt… but otherwise find little differentiation in it. Yet the way Tharaud enriches every space between the notes with atmosphere is surprisingly, enjoyably distinct from the perfectly fine but perhaps rigid, note-bound (and minimally faster) interpretation of Gottlieb Wallisch (Naxos). [Samples below.]

Sonata Kk.64 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

Sonata Kk.64 (excerpt), Gottlieb Wallisch

In Kk.141, one of my great favorites, Tharaud proves Pletnevian spunk, and a more peckish-puckish touch than even Ross goes for on the harpsichord—an instrument you’d think better suited for the wind-up toy-like repeated four-note figures that characterize the Sonata (also in D-minor). [Samples below.] Kk.380 (E-Major, another favorite) has a perfect balance of attitude and cool, quicksilver fleetness and coy bumps. After the delightfully whimsical Kk.431 (in G-Major, see sample atop), he closes with Kk.9, a highlight on any Scarlatti sonata collection, and it is here, too.

Sonata Kk.141 (excerpt), Alex Tharaud

Sonata Kk.141 (excerpt), Scott Ross

EMI/Virgin has several videos of Tharaud & Scarlatti on YouTube: Alexandre Tharaud plays Scarlatti, Alexandre Tharaud – Scarlatti, Sonate K141 pour piano,Alexandre Tharaud – Sonates de Scarlatti – ITV de l’artiste.

Alexandre Tharaud was most recently reviewed on ionarts: "Tharaud: A Case of Perpetual Puppy"

Pictures by Alexandre Tharaud, "Perugia" (top) and "Bruxelles" (bottom)

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