Alexandre Tharaud at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, October 21, 2008. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Last night at Music Toronto, we heard the debut in our town of a pianist and a piano. The piano is a New York Steinway, chosen by Jennifer Taylor on the advice of Jamie Parker. The pianist is the French sensation Alexandre Tharaud, whose recent recordings of Chopin’s “Preludes” and Rameau’s “Suites” in A and G transcribed from harpsichord to piano (also a Steinway) are winning accolades. Tharaud earned ovations. The Steinway, though very bright, will surely develop, over time, a glorious sound.

The slight harshness of the Steinway’s tone and its current lack of subtle degrees of warmth actually worked to our advantage last night bringing the music closer to its original incarnation on the harpsichord. M. Tharaud’s strengths as a pianist, his technique, his musicality and the careful study he has obviously lavished on the scores awakened in me a new interest in Rameau’s music. My first impression was its vividness. From the opening bars on of the “Rondeau in G”, through the delicate “Minuet” and the two pieces that follow, one is mesmerized. The musical lines stand out, the charming, disarming, song-like dance rhythms are shaded by introspective, sometimes weird chords. A frank sensuality in Tharaud’s playing brings to mind the nostalgia of a cocktail piano, and the elaborate bluesy sound of Art Tatum. This is my way of saying Tharaud brings Rameau up-to-date.

The “A Major/Minor Suite” introduces the intellect of Rameau, the composer of operas. Tharaud lets us hear the wonderful structure of each verse of these ‘dance-songs’ and the drama of their overall structure. It is very easy to appreciate the distinctiveness of M. Tharaud’s phrasing and use of rubato in “La Farfarinette”, which was the theme for Jurgen Gothe’s recently retired show on CBC radio. Over many years of listening, one came to know multiple recorded arrangements of this melody, but the distinctiveness of Tharaud’s interpretation struck one immediately as outstanding.  In my notes following the “Gavotte and six doubles” I scribbled the words: “this rocks.” Tharaud offers a nice balance of feeling, form, and drama to which I will be happy to return often through his CD on Harmonia Mundi where he plays a truly seasoned Steinway.

Tharaud really warmed to his work after intermission in the Chopin “Preludes.” His playing falls between the fire of Martha Argerich and the delicacy of Ashkenazi. In any case, these groundbreaking pieces, composed under hostile circumstances, speak to the heart, and through their combination of transcendent beauty and dissonant cathartic eruptions, restore us to balance. One measure of Tharaud’s mastery are his playing of the funereal No. 6 (B Minor) and the 12th (G# Minor) both of which demand and get excellence in the switching of melody to the left hand and in his patterning of notes held and released. Tharaud’s skill in holding a pause is totally arresting in the famous and also funereal No. 4 (E Minor). The brief but gorgeous long-lined 7th remains in the mind as do the fleet 16th (Bb Minor) and the turbulent F Minor, No. 18.

Tharaud’s playing, whether forte or soft, joins the notes in a beautiful way that keeps the work as a whole moving forward. His physical style at the keyboard is distinctive and conveys his sincerity without being distracting. Ovations and two encores, a Couperin piece among them sent us on our way deeply satisfied.

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