Saturday 19 March 2016

It's All About Piano Festival - film about Alexandre Tharaud and recital by Joanna MacGregor, 18 March 2016

Images: Mariona Vilaros

Ciné Lumière, Institut Français

Ligeti – Musica ricercata, nos 1-6
Satie – Gnossiennes nos 1, 3, 5
Satie – Sports et divertissements
Liszt – Nuages gris, S 199
Liszt – La gondola lugubre, S 200/1
Wagner-Liszt – Isoldens Liebestod - Schlußszene aus Richard Wagners ‘Tristan und Isolde’, S 447
Piazzolla, arr. MacGregor – Four Tangos


The Institut Français ‘It’s All About Piano!’ festival has now become an established part of the London musical calendar. Any excuse to visit the institute is always welcome for me: one of the few places I know in London where I can drink decent wine at a reasonable price; I also get to practise a little of my French too. This weekend, though, is by any standards quite an undertaking; I wish my schedule had permitted me to attend more. As it was, I saw the opening film and opening concert, both of which gave me pleasure and food for thought.

First, I saw Raphaëlle Aellig Régnier’s 2013 film, Le Temps dérobé (translated, or perhaps better, very freely rendered, into English as Behind the Veil). The pianist Alexandre Tharaud talks about his travelling life and his concert routine, and we observe him on tour. There are a few snatches of music from Bach to Stravinsky but the performances are not in themselves the thing; there is no complete performance (although there is, apparently, on the DVD version: Mozart’s KV 488). We hear so much in general about the travails of a performing artist’s travelling life that we almost become inured to them; not here, for the pain as well as the pleasure readily comes through. Tharaud speaks frankly about the loneliness of touring, which might be fine for a twenty-year-old, but becomes more testing as an artists ages. (Not, of course, that he is old!) He speaks about his dislike of his body, his arms in particular, which perhaps surprises the viewer, since the pianist is certainly loved by the camera; Tharaud, however, tells us that he has learned to live with that and indeed to harness it. Collaborations with artists such as Jean-Guihen Queyras, Bernard Labadie, and the composer, Gérard Pesson are witnessed, as well as that ultimate musical-heroic achievement, the solo piano recital. (Yes, I know many will disagree, but you will not convince me otherwise.) The interest and delight Tharaud takes in the wizardry of his piano tuner is especially winning – and informative. Régnier’s film-making captures the pianist both as an object, willing or otherwise, and as an initiator.

The first recital of the weekend was given by Joanna MacGregor. She had been asked to include Satie, it being the composer’s 150th anniversary and clearly relished the opportunity to do so. If MacGregor is in her element with Satie, I admit that I am much less so. My problem with music that is primarily conceptual, indeed shouts itself to be so, even if that shout be a nonchalant one, remains. The Gnossiennes, three of them, sounded genuinely charming, mystical even, imbued with intriguing, even incongruous, hints of Eastern Europe. Sports et divertissements: well, the madcap, cinematic sketches were diverting, but I should not have wished to hear any more. MacGregor’s performance, as well as her engaging spoken introduction, could not be faulted. Perhaps the fault, such as it is, lies with me. I simply do not listen in the way Satie seems to want; or maybe the problem is that he does not want anything at all. Answers on a Parisian postcard, please.


We had heard, preceding the Satie pieces, the first six of Ligeti’s near-miraculous ‘opus one’, his Musica ricercata. How wonderfully inventive they are, even if they sound much more ‘like’ their influences than the ‘mature’ composer. This is process music to which I can relate, and indeed to which anyone, I think, can relate, intellectually and emotionally. MacGregor’s command of the keyboard, of Ligeti’s range of styles, of the humour of these pieces had me longing for more. I hope I shall have the opportunity to hear her play the whole set.

I was not entirely sure quite what the Liszt works were doing in the programme, not that I minded. Nuages gris sounded beautiful, all the more so for its lightly-worn depression. Liszt’s imagination in these late works: what can one say that has not been said before? They remain as extraordinary in their crafting, their bitterness, their radicalism as they ever were. So Nuages gris, which threatens to go beyond Debussy and Bartók avant la lettre, sounded here. The first Lugubre gondola was taken lighter, more swiftly than I can recall. It made me think I had perhaps made too much of a meal out of it myself. It is certainly not how I should always want to hear it, but the voice from the water spoke as alluringly as, if less Romantically than, I can recall. Liszt’s transcription of the so-called Liebestod – Liszt’s doing, I am afraid, that troublesome title for Isoldes Verklärung – from Tristan und Isolde was somewhat let down by some surprising technical slips. It was, though, perhaps the most radical of MacGregor’s performances: Wagner heard more as Satie than as Liszt, or so it sounded to me. Again, I should not always wish to hear it like this; in context, however, and without didactic fanfare, it intrigued.

MacGregor sounded much more at home, immediately, in her own transcriptions of Piazzolla Tangos. I am afraid I do not know which they were, since they were not listed in the programme, and I am anything but an expert in this repertoire. What I can say is that colour, harmony, and rhythm moved, now slinky, now more sexually aggressive, in her interpretations as if they were one. Indeed, the performances did not really sound like ‘interpretations’ at all, so faithful and yet so free did they sound. MacGregor added another as an encore, lapped up by an appreciative audience.