Alexandre Tharaud: Better with Baroque

United StatesUnited States Mozart, F. Couperin, Schubert, Beethoven, Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 26-01-2015 (SSM)

Mozart: Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331
Couperin: Selections from Pièces de clavecin
La logivière
Les Calotines
Les rozeaux
Les baricades mistérieuses
Les ombres errantes
La triomphante
Le Carillon de Cithère
Le tic-toc-choc, ou Les maillotins
Schubert: 16 German Dances, D. 783
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110



Bach: Prelude in B Minor (arr. Siloti)
Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor, K. 141


I owe an apology to a colleague for questioning his description of Alexandre Tharaud as “the astonishing Baroque pianist.” It seemed to me that one might call Glenn Gould or Rosalyn Tureck “Baroque pianists,” but Tharaud? His latest disk consists of music by Haydn and Mozart and, before that, there was a CD of short pieces that might be presented as encores. Bach is there, but so are Chopin, Grieg, Fauré and Scriabin. Going back one more is a CD that includes “The man I love.”

But despite this repertory, far from anything that can be called Baroque, I’ve changed my mind about the appellation “Baroque pianist.” I did so because I think that this is the style of music he plays best. He seemed more comfortable and more assured in the Couperin, and in the obsessively eccentric encore by Scarlatti. His Mozart on the whole was very broadly played, with more rubato than needed and a very un-classical looseness. At times he followed Gould in some of his quirkiness, such as bringing out melodic lines in the left hand covering the real melody in the right; or changing legatos not quite to staccato but certainly détaché. Granted, he comes nowhere near the comical hurdy-gurdy playing of Mozart by Gould, who admitted that he hated Mozart’s music.

Most Baroque composers could not easily protect their works from hacks and plagiarists, and they themselves hacked and plagiarized others. Bach borrowed music from Vivaldi and Marcello, Vivaldi from Broschi and Hasse, Handel from Scarlatti and Telemann. But Couperin was different. Working within and protected by the court of Louis XIV, he had little fear of his music being published without his authorization. As he wrote in the preface of Book 3 of his Pièces de Clavecin: “I am always surprised to hear of people who have learned them without heeding my instructions…. My pieces must be executed as I have marked them, and they will never make an impression on persons of real taste unless one observes to the letter all that I have marked without any additions or deletions.” Few pianists can take the music of Couperin and successfully replicate his idiosyncratic style. What might he have thought of the Steinways of Tharaud and the Faziolis of Angela Hewitt?

Tharaud has the sensitivity to  ̶  and ability to recreate  ̶  a sound world that neither demeans the sometimes overwrought ornamentation, nor enlarges music that is soft-spoken and fragile. While there are debates as to what the titles of these pieces mean, many are inside jokes, pièces de caractères, including one entitled “Le Couperin,” clearly the first auditory “selfie” to be created. Some pieces were more successful here than others. The often-played “Les barricades mistérieuses” and “Les ombres errantes” generally worked well, given the ability of the piano to dampen and sustain the notes, thus coming closer than a harpsichord can to create a feeling of mystery or visions of roving shadows. Tharaud did the best he could on a piano with “Le triomphante” which, with the right stops on a multi-manual harpsichord, can approximate trumpet fanfares.

No piano, except perhaps, a toy one, can replicate the ethereal sounds of Le Carillon de Cithère, whose chiming silvery notes can be best approximated by the harpsichord.

Schubert’s 16 German dances are slight throwaways that, given Tharaud’s proclivity towards short pieces, were well characterized and charmingly played. Tharaud’s cameo in the French film “Amour” had him playing Beethoven’s self-described Bagatelles. But there is a big leap between bagatelles and Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, and it was less than successful. The fast movements have little softness in them, and strong-armed chords alone cannot support the music around them. Only in the Adagio did Tharaud capture some of the poignancy and heartache of this transcendent music.

Was it a second wind that had Tharaud give his some of best playing of the evening in Bach’s Prelude in B Minor (a slightly different arrangement of the 10th prelude from the WTC Book 1). Even better was Scarlatti’s sonata K.141, with its runs and repetitions of 16th notes  played 6 to a measure at an Allegro pace for most of the work, turning into increasingly more dissonant clusters as the binary iterations progressed. Unfortunately, the audience applause could not coax Tharaud out for a third (perhaps another Scarlatti?) encore.

Stan Metzger

For a second opinion of a slightly different program by Tharaud .(ed.)

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