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Alexandre Tharaud's Crushing Fortissimo Power

available at Amazon
Bach / Rameau / Couperin, A. Tharaud
(3-CD re-release, Harmonia Mundi)

available at Amazon
Scarlatti, A. Tharaud
(Erato, 2011)
Alexandre Tharaud continues to surprise me. At his latest recital here, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, it was not surprising to hear him play jewel-like Couperin (his opening set) or a delightful Scarlatti sonata as an encore (the guitar-like K. 141). The bulk of the program, though, showed the French pianist going in new directions, with composers not previously associated with him, at least by these ears.

Even in the set of eight Couperin pieces, drawn from all over the place, Tharaud seemed to be questing after new sounds and approaches, adding many changes and embellishments on repeats, not afraid to use the pedals copiously, strongly differentiating polyphonic voices, even hammering out some accents for percussive effect. His Les calotines clicked and clacked, as if with mechanical sounds, and he stretched Les rozeaux and the gorgeous Les barricades mistérieuses with taffy-like rubato. The pairing of Les ombres errantes and La triomphante was played for maximal contrast, delicate and ultra-slow for the former, trumpeted motifs bustling with agitation for the latter. After the clanging, sonorous bells of Le Carillon de Cythère (an effect easier to produce on the modern piano than on the harpsichord), the rhythmic infusion of Le tic-toc-choc, now synonymous with Tharaud, was played with more force than in his recording (or his 2008 recital at the French Embassy).

Mozart's A major sonata (K. 331) followed, the variations on its gentle lullaby theme given accented wrong-note grace notes and expertly voiced hand crossings. The menuetto was organized around its big orchestral unison motif, which set off more fast and delicate music, the trio a little slower and warmer in tone. Tharaud took the piece's famous finale, Alla Turca, at a perfect Allegretto tempo, not too fast, which allowed him to make strongly marked dynamic contrasts and apply a hard-biting touch in the loud Janissary sections, enlivened by percussive attacks. Tharaud's last performance of Schubert, the Moments musicaux at his 2010 recital at the Library of Congress with Jean-Guihen Queyras, was somewhat disappointing. Here he dove into that composer's set of sixteen German dances, D. 783, with much more variety of interpretation, from big and gutsy to forlorn and enigmatic, technically solid in the many challenges (parallel thirds, filigree rising scales, and so on) but with that free, lovely sense of rubato applied in the slow pieces.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A limited program and an inscrutable pianist at the Phillips (Washington Post, January 27)
The program was designed as a long crescendo toward the final piece, Beethoven's sonata in A-flat major, op. 110, or really toward that sonata's finale. Tharaud took the first movement at a slow, expressive tempo, emphasizing the music's delicate side and telling a compelling story with it through gradations of color in sound. The middle movement, marked Allegro molto, was taken at a rather slow speed, startling at first and perhaps not right for the joking quotations of folk songs (snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt, or 'Our cat has had kittens', and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, or 'I'm a slob, you're a slob'), but again with the payoff of being able to make maximal dynamic contrasts and to exaggerate sforzando attacks, as well as giving the piece a more legato feel than it usually has. The Klagender Gesang section was steeped in tragic gloom, through which the fugue subject pierced like a ray of sunshine. The tempo of the fugue was perfect, floating weightlessly, allowing all the voices to be delineated cleanly, even in the stretto sections, and making possible a furious cranking up of tempo as the piece rocketed to its conclusion. One of the remarks I made about Tharaud's 2012 recital at the French Embassy was that "crushing fortissimo power is the only weapon missing from [his] arsenal." The exultant hammered chords at the conclusion of the Beethoven made clear that this reservation was no longer justified.

The next recital not to be missed at the Phillips Collection will feature violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov (February 8).


Gary said...

This was delightful. It's so nice to hear some Couperin played in the DC area. I was disappointed when, a couple of years ago, Angela Hewitt replaced Couperin with Debussy for a concert at Shriver Hall. But I still love Angela.

Martin said...

I don't care if you post this, but this was an exemplary performance review. While I wasn't there, I would certainly go out of my way to hear this young man.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the detailed review. I found the performance stunning in its wide variety of works, skillfully performed. All those Couperin pieces! All those German dances! And the final Beethoven had such power. I was surprised to read the WP negative review. Kathy