In Oberlin, Transcendent Goldberg Variations from Tharaud

United StatesUnited States Bach, Goldberg Variations: Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 3.4.2019. (MSJ)

Someone once said that if Dublin, Ireland, were ever destroyed, a fair part of it could be reconstructed from the works of James Joyce. Perhaps if western civilization goes the way of the dinosaurs, the parts of it worth keeping could be reconstructed from J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What other work gathers so much logic, proportion, drama, science, and ingenuity, and then balances them both on the microscopic scale of exquisite detail and on the macroscopic scale of epic structure?

Alexandre Tharaud has pondered this opus for many years, but only played it publicly for seven, he said in a talk after the performance he gave at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel — part of their 140th season of artist recitals. The artist’s long consideration paid off, for while many pianists (and harpsichordists) play the work today, few have mastered the multiple levels of the Goldbergs like Tharaud.

The eminent French pianist was a last-minute substitution for Piotr Andreszewski, who had to cancel due to illness, but Tharaud showed no signs of fatigue, even playing a Scarlatti sonata as an encore — expanded by using most of the repeats. Tharaud began the opening aria with a delicate touch but with flowing tempo. Without trying to create a through-line of tempos as Glenn Gould controversially did in his second recording, Tharaud highlighted the relationships by restricting the range of tempo and volume early on. As the work unfolded, his strategy became apparent: the ranges expanded and became more dramatic.

For instance, No.15 — the first in a minor key — is sometimes a remote and unwordly retreat from the busy activity on either side of it. Tharaud instead played it urgently, saving otherworldliness for later, such as No.25 (which Wanda Landowska called the ‘black pearl’), almost breathtakingly operatic.

No.5, with its rapid hand crossings, was at a fleet speed, but calculated for elegance and flow within the overall context. In No.10’s fughetta, Tharaud demonstrated a keen ability to sort polyphonic textures, distinctively shading each entrance of the melody. He opened the second half with a more restrained and focused ouverture than has grown customary over the years.

In general, Tharaud’s approach was notable for its aristocratic elegance, achieving stunning accuracy without ever feeling overly controlled. It was less rigid than Gould, less severe than Tureck, more classical than Dinnerstein, less whimsical than Feltsman, and more poised than Perahia. Yet Tharaud included many of the elements that make those notable, within a convincing large-scale structure that slowly grew in intensity, culminating in a final quodlibet both grand and jolly. The return of the aria that launched the whole thing was marred only by an unfortunate cell phone interruption, which the pianist generously ignored. Given the exquisite acoustics of Finney Chapel, such nuisances are all-too-easily disruptive.

Without question, Tharaud is one of the current masters of the Goldberg Variations. This is all the more impressive considering that his repertory starts with even earlier compositions, and continues through living composers such as Hans Abrahamsen, whose tremendous Left, alone he performed last fall with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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