Alexandre Tharaud‘s Amazing Arts and Crafts during Amour

ItalyItaly Ravel, Grieg, Beethoven – Alexandre Tharaud (piano): Sala Sinopoli, Santa Cecilia, Rome.  4.12.2015. (JB)

In these days when younger pianists seem focused on knocking all hell out of the piano, the playing of Alexandre Tharaud comes with a welcome and welcoming breath of fresh air: understated, daringly poised and healthily agnostic, he is surely today’s poet of the keyboard.  Poetry prefers the language of sensibilities as opposed to ideas.  The problem, as Susan Sontag never tired of saying, is that it is very difficult for a sensibility not to harden into an idea, where it then, of course, ceases to be a sensibility.  Herein Tharaud’s refinement: fully aware of the trap, he takes impressive care not to fall into it.  I know of only one other young pianist  (Tharaud is now in his mid forties) who can stand alongside him on this.  Tharaud doesn’t make  you listen: he invites you.  Beautiful, aristocratic manners.  I am hearing Tharaud live for the first time tonight.  Before he starts, I can see that the programme has been intelligently chosen to deliver what he does best.

My first experience of Tharaud’s playing was in Michael Haneke’s 2007 film, Amore.  As with other Haneke films we are unflinchingly confronted with  life’s inconvenient truths: in this case, Death.  But as always, Haneke invites us to understand that there are more aspects to the subject under consideration than we may have ever imagined.  In this case, Love.  (This much reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s assertion that there really isn’t very much difference between Life and Death.  Haneke’s twin pair offer zero comfort but increase the speculation stakes.) Emmanuelle Riva received an Oscar Nomination for her heart-stopping performance as the elderly piano teacher who is dying.  Much of the Love element is provided by her husband, convincingly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant.  The movie opens with the couple at a recital by Tharaud, who plays himself and has the name Alexandre Tharaud on and off screen.  He is willowy and photogenic and profoundly sad for what he sees happening to his teacher; and also in his playing.  The haunting melancholy which he brings out in certain passages is one of his defining qualities. It sounds effortless and subtly contrived in the same stroke, as well as supremely right for the chosen parts,  Moreover, this is unique treatment.

Harmony could never mean the same thing after Ravel’s Sonatine.  Our ears learned that dissonances need not be “resolved” by consonances.  What happens when dissonance is invited to respond to another dissonance?  Ravel studiedly doesn’t give us an answer.  He invites us to find one.  Tharaud is sublime in the extending of this invitation.  Strings of dominant ninths, elevenths and thirteenths resolve (if that isn’t stretching the word) to strings of ninths, elevenths and thirteenths in distant keys.  Tharaud has found a subtle way of floating these chords into a subliminal eternity.  What a poise of balance and phrasing!  His performance clearly states this is not the resolution folks  so much as are you still with me here?   Indeed we are sir.  Ravel never had a finer servant.

All this is floated with the lightness of air in the first movement.  In the quasi-toccata finale, the Tharaud fingers ripple with the unstoppable force and energy of water.  Both energies are Ravel gods.  And the audience was an awestruck congregation in this thrilling, heathen temple.

The gentle wry humour of the middle movement – Minuet – is in D flat major, as far away as you can get from the F sharp minor of the outer movements.  The grounding here has hints of Edwardian music hall with the hints being too gentle to be heard as parody.  And following such polite convention, the Minuet has the cheek to come to rest on a dominant, instead of a tonic chord: another have you fastened your seat belt?  Reminder, in readiness for the finale takeoff.  We have, sir. And just as well.  No return tickets on  Tharaud flights.

Ravel’s Miroirs are much more intimate pieces (five of them in tributes / conversations with friends) than the Sonatine. Intimacy is another remarkable quality of the Tharaud musical makeup.  As I’ve indicated, he never bullies his audience; this is always listening by invitation.  His climaxes are more likely to come through diminuendos than crescendos.  Those beautiful, aristocratic manners again.  A friend said listening to him was like a seduction.  Well, yes: in the best seduction neither the seducer nor the seduced is aware of it happening until it’s happened.  Sometimes a knowing smile will pass across Alexandre’s lips. If he is aware of this, I am sure he will be very disappointed in himself.  He surely knows that a condition of his gift is that he must not disturb the gods.

The lyric pieces  of Grieg  are frighteningly simple.  And here Alexandre Tharaud is as alarmingly bold as the young Siegfried.  Rashly daring.  This could easily have cancelled out Grieg’s charm.  But it doesn’t.  I can see the Norwegian composer smiling benignly down on the young daredevil , especially in the Sleigh Wedding, the finale of the six.  What it does lead to – at least to my ears – is an enchanting dialogue between composer and player.  And shouldn’t all performance have this dialogue?

[I had better put in here what it is that permits me to suggest that this dialogue might have taken place.  More than half a century ago I was playing one of these lyric pieces at a piano lesson with Henry Geehl (then aged eighty-one; he died the following year).  I forget which of the pieces but Mr Geehl stopped me and said Please play again the last eight bars exactly as you played them.   I did.  How interesting  he mused, I rather think the old boy would have liked that mistake you made; I remember discussing this piece with him.   Mr Geehl knew everybody; the old boy here is Grieg.  In carelessness I had probably turned an Italian sixth into a French sixth or some such error.  But the lesson stayed with me: the error is sometimes the right “answer”. ]

The programme ended with the Beethoven Appassionata sonata.  And here Mr Tharaud sounded like he was having a battle with the piano.  True enough, this was a battle the composer had started to have himself by Opus 57.  This may be selfish of me, but as I cannot get enough of Tharaud‘s amazing arts and crafts, I would have much rather have heard him directly in “conversation” with the composer.  I am sure Ludwig would have obliged.

Michael Haneke called his film Amore  and if you wanted to get the genius of Alexandre Tharaud into a single word, that would probably be it.  A coincidence?  If you know the world of Haneke you will know that therein there is no such thing as coincidence.

Jack Buckley

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