Saturday, January 31, 2015

Alexandre Tharaud in Vancouver

Just before his recital in Vancouver last evening, pianist Alexandre Tharaud played nearly the same programme at Carnegie Hall, New York, where critic Vivien Schweitzer was less than complimentary. I must say I disagree with the distinguished writer of the New York Times, for I thought Tharaud gave us a well thought-out programme as well as a thoughtful, and always interesting, concert.

I thought that Tharaud was courageous to have used the score throughout the evening. With over a century of “tradition” of playing from memory, it takes a pianist of some daring to use have the music in front of him for a performance. Playing with the music should be just a matter of preference, not a moral choice, since conservatory, competitions, and piano examinations have, since the beginning of the 20th century, stressed playing from memory, and some music teachers and conservatory professors treat playing from the score as some kind of mortal sin. I have noticed that more pianists, including Richard Goode, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Peter Serkin, are using the score when performing.

The pianist opened his recital with Mozart’s justly famous Sonata in A Major, K. 331. In the first movement, Tharaud, I believe, seek to bring out the individual characteristic of each variation, rather than trying to blend the music from one variation to the next. His Mozart playing is one of full tone and rich colours, scintillating rather than beautiful. Tharaud’s approach to Mozart reminded me of Glenn Gould’s Mozart sonata recordings, but without the extremes in Gould’s Mozart interpretation and tempi choice. The playing in the third movement was bold and exuberant, certainly bringing out the “Turkish” flavor in the music.

Tharaud went on to give us an unmannered and dignified playing of a Chopin group – the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. posth., and the great Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49. I appreciated how he handled the many shifts in mood, sound, and texture in the Fantasy, and how he conveyed the organic unity of the large musical canvas. The pianist’s interpretation was, however, hampered by the rather dull and wooden sounding piano. This was especially apparent in the performance of the Fantasy, where he tried hard to coax as much colour and sound out of the instrument as possible, not always successfully. This experience certainly went against the adage that “there are no bad pianos, just bad pianists.” Last evening, the pianist was just fine, but not the piano.

Schubert’s 16 German Dances, D. 783 contain some of the composer’s loveliest musical thoughts, and Tharaud’s interpretation was as musical, charming and infectious as can be. When pianist Fou Ts’ong included a set of Schubert dances in one of his Vancouver recitals, a local pianist complained that he was playing “student pieces”. No, performing these dances are far from being child’s play, and it takes a true musician to bring out the lilt and grace each of these miniatures call for. They are certainly worthy for inclusion in more recital programmes.

I felt that Tharaud’s performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110, was highly successful. It was a beautiful, cohesive performance that effectively conveyed the overall architecture and emotional landscape of the great work, which is no small accomplishment. Over time and, perhaps, with age, the pianist would draw us more into the inner world of this late work, and bring out the other-worldly beauties of this incredible music.

Upon the urging of the audience, Tharaud gave us two delicious morsels, a Scarlatti sonata with all the fleetness and incredible finger work the music calls for, and Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Op. posth., underscoring the French salon flavor of this music, and utterly lovely and charming from first note to last.

We are blessed in this city to have organizations like the Vancouver Chopin Society and the Vancouver Recital Society to keep the tradition of the solo recital alive, and for brining us artists like Alexandre Tharaud. After the wonderful recital by Emmanuel Ax just a couple of weeks earlier, and with pianists like Steven Osborne, Paul Lewis and Sir Andras Schiff to look forward to in the next few months, 2015 is certainly off to a very good start!

Now if the Canadian dollar would only go back up…

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Afternoon with Emmanuel Ax

It had been many years since I heard Emmanuel Ax perform, so it was with great anticipation that I attended his solo recital yesterday at Vancouver’s only good full-size concert hall, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The programme, a French-based programme of Bizet, Rameau, Debussy and Chopin (one mustn’t forget that Chopin spent his adult life in Paris, and that his father was French), really showed Ax’s capacity for growth as a musician and artist, and his refusal to be “type-casted”. It was truly a lovely afternoon of wonderful music making by a great musician.

I only knew of Georges Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques de Concert through a recording by Glenn Gould - coupled at the time with Grieg’s E Minor Sonata. In Gould’s own words, this set of variations is, “one of the very few masterpieces for solo piano to emerge from the third quarter of the nineteenth century; its almost total neglect is a phenomenon for which I can offer no reasonable explanation.”

I was grateful to Ax for including this work in his recital. To my ears, Bizet’s Variations is very much a child of its time, with hints of influence by Chopin, Schumann (very much so), and Liszt. As I listened to it, it reminded me of another unjustly neglected work, Grieg’s Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song, Op. 24, a piece structurally and stylistically very much in the same vein as the Bizet. I do not know whether this is a new work for Ax, but it sounded just ever so slightly less assured as the rest of his programme. Nevertheless, we should be grateful to the artist for introducing us to this lovely work.

I was also unfamiliar to the next item on Ax’s programme, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in G Major/Minor from Nouvelles Pièces de clavecin. Much of the writing for the keyboard is reminiscent of the Sonatas of Scarlatti. Ax’s playing was beautiful, and totally musical, with all the grace and lightness the music calls for. His playing certainly makes a strong case for playing music conceived for the harpsichord on the piano – not that a case ever needed to be made.

With the rest of the recital programme, the audience is on very familiar territory. Ax gave us incredibly lovely playing in his performances of Debussy’s Estampes, Hommage à Rameau, and the finger-breaking L’Isle Joyeuse – “Happy Island”, as a teacher of mine used to facetiously call it. It is perhaps no accident that Ax attended Columbia University in his youth and majored in French, for he obviously has an affinity for the music. The sound he conjured from the piano was magical, with pianissimos as gorgeous as Gieseking, but with a greater range of tone and colour than the legendary German pianist.

I could think of no greater technical and musical challenge than to negotiate all four of Chopin’s Scherzi, which was what Ax did after the interval. Vladimir Horowitz said that to successfully play Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1, the pianist needed to have both demonic and angelic qualities. Ax does not need to apologize for lacking in any of these qualities, and he certainly rose to the occasion in his technically impregnable performance of the first Scherzo. What stayed in my ears long after the concert, though, was the beauty he conjured from the piano in the middle section, taken from the Polish Christmas carol Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus). The second and fourth Scherzi received similarly convincing interpretations.

To my ears, Ax’s interpretation of the Scherzo No. 2 was more convincing than Perahia’s last year. I thought that his playing of the Scherzo No. 4, the most difficult one technically, was simply breathtaking. I had only a slight quibble with the tempo he took in the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor. To me, the quick tempo he adopted actually takes away some of the tension, and the tempestuous quality of the music.

Upon the urging of the audience, Ax ended his performance in Vancouver quietly, with Robert Schumann’s Des Abends, from his Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. It was a completely satisfying afternoon of great playing of great music.

We await Mr. Ax’s next return to Vancouver, when he will, to be sure, share the joys of his musical discoveries with us.