Thursday, 16 February 2012

Alexandre Tharaud - Scarlatti, Chopin, and Liszt, 15 February 2012

Wigmore Hall

Scarlatti – Sonata in D minor, Kk 64
Sonata in D minor, Kk 9
Sonata in C major, Kk 72
Sonata in C major, Kk 132
Sonata in D major, Kk 29
Sonata in E major, Kk 380
Sonata in A minor, Kk 3
Sonata in C major, Kk 514
Sonata in F minor, Kk 481
Sonata in D minor, Kk 141
Chopin – Piano Sonata no.2 in B-flat minor, op.35
Liszt – Funérailles, S 173/7


This proved a surprisingly mixed recital, the surprise lying for the most part in what came off best. On the basis of Alexandre Tharaud’s wonderful Couperin and Rameau, I had lazily expected that Scarlatti would fare equally well. Scarlatti’s music is of course different in almost every respect, and it was only at the end of the first half that Tharaud’s performances really caught fire, a good number of the earlier sonatas having proved frustratingly prosaic. Moreover, I had not expected that some of the most impressive pianism and musicianship would come in the music of Liszt.

Scarlatti first. As a schoolboy I played a good number of his sonatas, not least because they tended to crop up as alternatives to the more ‘difficult’ works by Bach in the Baroque lists for Associated Board exams. It was not really until I also took up the organ and became truly besotted with Bach that I persuaded my teacher that I should really have the chance to explore Bach on the piano. For children, the attractions of Scarlatti are many: rhythm, ‘Spanish’ colour, technical challenges that can generally be surmounted with a bit of hard work, and so on; one tends to assimilate him, consciously or otherwise, into a semi-alternative view of piano-history to the solidly Teutonic. In that respect, I was intrigued to hear what would be made of the juxtaposition with Chopin’s keyboard poetry, though more was offered in theory than reality. Tharaud’s lack of exaggeration in many of the sonatas was welcome; for instance the willingness only to hint at the Hispanic elements – guitars strumming, mordants and some of the harmonies – in the first sonata, Kk 64, though but there were times when I longed for a broader expressive range. Scarlatti as precursor of Chopin and Bartók, amongst others, might have been more apparent. There was a beautifully dreamy opening to the second of the D minor sonatas, Kk 9, but it suffered from a loss of momentum in the material that followed, meandering rather than directed. Kk 72 and Kk 29 were performed in virtuoso moto perpetuo mode; I could not help wishing that Tharaud would allow them to yield, if only a little, and there was occasional clumsiness too, especially in the former. There is more to this music than he allowed there, as some delicate shading in Kk 132 attested. Even in that case, however, more might well have been made of Scarlatti’s dissonances and other harmonic surprises.

A more generous palette was employed in Kk 380, whilst abrupt contrasts and extraordinary chromaticism were clearly relished in an impressive account of Kk 3. Kk 514 was somewhat on the brittle side, however: yes, there is an undeniable percussive element to the music, but there are also melodic phrases to be shaped. The final two sonatas received what were perhaps the best performances. Kk 481, in F minor, received a sensitive reading, showing Tharaud perfectly capable of cantabile tone and a recognisably pianistic touch; it was just a pity that they had not been more readily on offer earlier. There was a more pianistic sensibility to the closing D minor sonata, Kk 141, too; had Tharaud perhaps been a little too eager to imitate the harpsichord? It is difficult to say, but if so, it had not really worked. The sonata’s opening theme was an especial highlight, almost Lisztian in the sense of the first Mephisto Waltz. Fierce ‘Spanish’ repeated strumming notes opened an equally impressive second section.

The second Chopin sonata also took a long time to catch fire. Indeed, the first two movements proved disappointing. The first movement progressed from phrase to phrase in alarmingly four-square fashion, exhibiting little sign of any grander sweep. Weighting of chords could be heavy-handed too, sounding closer to Rachmaninov than Chopin. The second movement tended to grimace rather than to rage, whilst its trio material emerged in distended fashion, again largely a consequence of proceeding from phrase to phrase, even beat to beat. Harmonic rhythm was sadly lacking. The Funeral March, however, sounded on quite a different level. It was given a straightforward, unaffected performance, in which Chopin’s line was permitted magically to reveal itself. The cantilena of the second subject was sensitively, movingly shaped: quite absorbing. Chopin’s finale came across with a true sense of its weird, disorienting experimentalism.

Liszt was represented by Funérailles. Tharaud’s opening bars clearly meant business, seemingly invigorated by the success of the latter part of the Chopin sonata. They truly thundered, both as true piano music and telling of something beyond the concert hall: Liszt’s – and a revolution’s – grief. As the piece progressed, echoes of Chopin’s funeral march became more pronounced, not just in the obvious sense of ‘likeness’ but in their generative function for Liszt’s form, actually conveyed more tellingly, more dramatically, than the ‘original’. Again, the contrasting cantilena was beautifully handled. It was tempting to wish that, in the light of this performance, Tharaud would return to Scarlatti and see whether more might be done with his music now.

The recital was being recorded, I assume for Wigmore Hall Live.

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