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…

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