Tharaud’s Varied Program from Scarlatti to Ravel

 United StatesUnited States Scarlatti, Ravel, Chopin, Liszt: Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Weill Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 24.10.2012 (SSM)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E Major, K. 380
Sonata in A Minor, K. 3
Sonata in C Major, K. 514
Sonata in F Minor, K. 481
Sonata in D Minor, K. 141
Maurice Ravel: Miroirs
Frédéric Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35
Franz Liszt: Funérailles from Harmornies poétiques et religieuses

His fingers seem to extend across the entire keyboard, and they snap back after a run of chords as if they were made of rubber. Alexandre Tharaud reminds one of Vladimir Horowitz, and the comparison is not far-fetched: in addition to their long fingers and similar way of attacking the keyboard is their love for Scarlatti.

No major composer since the eighteenth-century has left behind so much music, but so little background on that music and even less about himself. We know that Scarlatti was music teacher to Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal – later Queen of Spain – for over thirty years. Copies of two fifteen-volume editions of sonatas written out by the Queen’s copier were found in Parma and Venice, but not one piece of paper from Scarlatti’s own hand. There have been conspiracy theories that, aside from the musical scores, everything of and about Scarlatti was “made to disappear.” Apart from some anecdotal stories, such as the contest in Scarlatti’s youth with Handel as to who was the better harpsichordist and who the better organist (Scarlatti won the former and Handel the latter), virtually nothing is known about him. Perhaps the inability of history to make a personality out of Scarlatti has limited the public’s interest and has resulted in his music being underappreciated and underplayed.

There are 550-plus sonatas, and, aside from a few simple, childlike pieces, not one can be considered a dud. Specific ornamentations and trills are bountiful in Scarlatti’s scores, but rules as to whether they should fall on a note or before it are still open to debate. Although most of the sonatas are marked with a tempo description of the most general kind, few of them have any dynamic marking This is not unusual, given the fact that aside from instruments with double manuals and those capable of changes in register, dynamic changes were not possible on the harpsichord of Scarlatti’s time. Even though Queen Maria Barbara of Spain was one of the first purchasers of a pianoforte, Scarlatti continued to write for her in a style suitable for the earlier instrument .

The sparseness of playing indicators can be seen by the performer either as a demand that the works be played exactly as written, or as an invitation to fill in what is not there. In fact this dichotomy generally falls in line with which instrument is played. The more restricted interpretations use the harpsichord (Kirkpatrick, Ross, Leonhardt); the more improvisatory use the piano (Horowitz, Pletnev, Sudbin and Tharaud). However, there are exceptions with freer interpretations on the harpsichord (Landowsa, Hantai, Valenti), and stricter interpretations on the piano (Schiff, Meyers, Grante).

There is no question to which school Tharaud belongs. Scarlatti’s sonata K. 380 was just a warm-up. K.3 opened crisply with a flourish but failed to reveal and emphasize the audacious syncopated chromatic scales that run up and down individually and jointly. A speedy run through of K. 514 was imaginatively phrased and smoothly played, but this piece’s quirky theme works best when played on a harpsichord and even better when played using the lute stop. The lyrical K. 481 was performed with just the right touch and sensitivity, and the wildly virtuosic K. 141, with its repeated notes and dissonant chords, was a good example of how well Scarlatti can be played by a pianist of Tharaud’s ability.

Ravel’s Miroirs takes us into the first years of the twentieth century and represents one of the varied paths that music was to take throughout the 1900s. Scriabin, Vaughan Williams, Schoenberg, Ives, Rachmaninoff and De Falla were all born within three years of Ravel, and each composer followed or created his own style, be it late Romantic, mystical, nationalistic or avant-garde. Ravel’s Miroirs, in addition to being in the forefront of the impressionist movement, also looks back to programmatic music of the nineteenth-century: Noctuelles(Night Moths), Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) and the rest of the movements imitate the sounds of nature.

Tharaud’s performance was captivating from the start. The ability to fine tune his velocity and to control the timing of phrases was there from the opening Noctuelles. His Oiseaux tristes had an almost eerie edge to it. Une Barque sur l’océan uses techniques and phrasing that seem somewhat clichéd, but Tharaud successfully steered the boat to shore. Only Alboradodel gracioso lacked clarity of line and color, but I may be prejudiced by my familiarity with Ravel’s richly-hued orchestral transcription.

Whether coincidentally or deliberately, Tharaud chose two funereal works, Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata No. 2 and Lizst’s Funérailles from Harmornies poétiques et religieuses. The first movement of the Chopin was played with tremendous energy and intensity, the massive runs of chords attacked with hands that seemed to bounce off the keyboard. The opening of the third movement, “Funeral March,” is so overplayed that it is easy to forget there is some astoundingly beautiful music within it, and Tharaud was sensitive to the slightest variations. The final movement, normally taken at lightning speed, in Tharaud’s hands sped by so quickly that it sounded like a coda to the third movement.

“What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?” Liszt’s famous explanation of his orchestral work, “Les Préludes,” can be applied to his work in general with some slight changes: “What else is our life but a series of preludes leading to nowhere.” Tharaud did a fine performance of this work in spite of its bloviation.

The first encore was the poignant transcription Bach wrote for a Benedetto Marcello oboe concerto. The second encore came as an amusing contrast to the all the music before it: variations on Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”

Stan Metzger