The Explorations of Alexandre Tharaud

CanadaCanada Mozart, Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven: Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, 30.1.2015 (GN)

Mozart: Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331
Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth
Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49
Schubert: 16 German Dances, D.783
Beethoven: Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
Scarlatti: Sonata, K. 141
Chopin: Waltz in A-minor, Op. posth

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud first appeared in Vancouver with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras about five years ago, but this Chopin Society concert was his solo debut. Its programme closely mimicked that given in Zankel Hall four days earlier, an event noted for a particularly indulgent performance – not by the pianist – but by local weathermen who predicted the cataclysmic snowstorm that wasn’t, originally creating speculation that the New York concert might be cancelled. I am sure Tharaud found the prospect of arriving in Vancouver somewhat of a relief, since here weathermen mention the possibility of snow more as an act of nostalgia.

The most cherishable contributions of this talented artist over the past decade have been his stimulating interpretations of Baroque composers (Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti and Bach), plus his equally-acclaimed traversal of Ravel’s complete piano music. One has been consistently impressed by the sheer beauty and sensitivity of his articulation and his unique imagination and warmth. Tharaud has also made a very successful start on Chopin’s piano music and, just last year, issued a disc of Mozart concertos. Except for a little Chopin, this concert explored quite new repertoire and nothing Baroque or French at all.

The two Chopin Nocturnes went very well. This was genuinely distinguished playing: felt, suspended and tonally enticing. Interestingly, I could sometimes detect almost a French nonchalance in parts of the lyrical line. I think that overall the balance and crystalline elegance in the readings stood out more than their intimate touching qualities. The Fantasie in F minor took things up a notch, vividly contrasting its passages of quiet musing with a dramatic, almost Horowitz-like, fire and weight in the work’s more passionate and impetuous sections. This was playing of absolutely stunning virtuoso control, pushing headlong with full Lisztian projection. The very slow and quiet ending with the detached notes gently falling away was individual and special.

The ever-popular Mozart Sonata, K. 331 was more controversial, bringing a wider range of dramatic postures, expressive lines and brazen punctuations than one might be used to.  Nonetheless, this was not a particularly romantic reading; more one that stressed Baroque foundations. After a ‘singing’ delivery of the famous opening motif, Tharaud opened out a wide variety of left hand phrases, often giving them brusque emphasis in contrast to the point and piquancy of the rest. If I hadn’t been listening to a variety of Haydn sonatas played on the fortepiano very recently, this might have proved something of a puzzle. What Tharaud seemed to be aiming for is exactly the same type of exposed bottom end and ‘twang’ of a fortepiano – yet achieved on a concert-grand. His representation was stunningly accurate. In turn, the clipped, staccato emphasis of many top-hand passages – especially in the “Alla Turca” – often seemed to approximate the wit, verve and voicing that one might achieve on a harpsichord. Truly an experiment of sorts, but there was lots of interesting question-and-answer brought out, and I learned something from it. For all that the beauty and fluidity of Uchida and others are rightly treasured, there really is room for a ‘rougher,’ more strongly contrasted Mozart, as Daniel-Ben Pienaar has also recently shown in a different way.

I have never heard Schubert’s 16 German Dances played in isolation at a concert. While obviously a makeweight to the closing Beethoven, I admit that I probably could have done with a few less of them. I do not find Tharaud to be a particularly coaxing Schubertian at this point. He revealed considerable keyboard finesse throughout – and beauty in the softer dances – but I found the unremitting hardness and weight in the others a little much.

Beethoven’s penultimate Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 was the focus of the evening, and illustrated an interesting dualism in this pianist. When Tharaud is performing Baroque works, his articulation is light, cunning, and remarkably engaging. When he crosses over to later music, he seemingly either tries to take things back to the Baroque or moves entirely in the other direction, tending towards grand interpretation with lavish pedaling and weight – almost as if he felt a new freedom to let go with his true ‘romantic’ self. The merits of this observation notwithstanding, this was a performance that certainly made the force of the 31st sonata equal to, or even greater than, that of the 32nd.

I had few problems with the early parts of the sonata. The opening movement moved with feeling and structure although it tended to be broader and more sensual rather than particularly intimate. I actually found the Scherzo slightly under-projected at its deliberate tempo. It was the last movement that raised eyebrows. I have rarely seen this closing set of fugal variations treated with such cinematic projection and weight, chords hammered in defiance, true saga. Indeed, the major snowstorm had finally arrived! One perhaps thinks first of the big romantic sonatas beyond Beethoven, but then one remembers the Bach/Busoni transcriptions and Bach’s great organ fugues with the weight of the pedal entries – and maybe it does make sense from a Baroque point of view. I am not convinced yet. As many classic interpretations show, it is possible to realize this sonata’s wonderful fluency and unity by much more subtle and economical means. Tharaud’s current Beethoven simply seems to use too much effort to get home.

The encores returned us to a more relaxed setting: the Scarlatti Sonata, K. 141 was quite dazzling and plenty of fun, while Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A minor was exquisitely delivered.

Geoffrey Newman
Previously published in a slightly different form on

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

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