Review: Alexandre Tharaud's sensitivity and depth a formidable combo

Chicago Tribune
Alexandre Tharaud's sensitivity, depth a fine combo

Alexandre Tharaud made his Orchestra Hall debut Sunday afternoon in the second of two piano recitals that are a part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "French Reveries & Passions Festival."

Unlike Cedric Tiberghien's program the week before, Tharaud's presented only French music and was the better for it, particularly since all selections departed from the tried-and-true beloved by Chicago audiences.

Tharaud's skill at assembling programs, well-known from several recordings, was matched by a sensitivity and depth of performance that did much to dispel the old idea of French pianism being brilliant, frivolous and lightweight.

He devoted the first half – 45 minutes — to pieces written for harpsichord by Francois Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. There were fully a dozen, more than a listener at the hall would encounter in a lifetime.

Success at playing this repertory on the piano has come to few. The greatest modern exponent was Marcelle Meyer, who also excelled at music of the 20th Century. Tharaud, 46, shares both affinities, adding to Meyer's elegance in Couperin and Rameau a sense of inwardness achieved through the finest gradations of volume, tone and color.

To virtuosity and opulence, then, Thareau added gentle warmth, which in Couperin's "The Roving Shadows" and the Sarabande from Rameau's Suite in A Minor gave a deep, withdrawn solemnity. This departure from jade-like hardness was unexpected and, in its way, as beautifully controlled as the balance between crispness and fluidity in flamboyant numbers such as Rameau's Gavotte and Variations.

In six miniatures by Erik Satie – three off-kilter "Next-to-last Thoughts" and three sensuous "Gnossiennes" (Nos. 1, 3 and 4) – the temptation is to overstate zaniness or buried sentiment. Tharaud did neither. Satie's directive for the First "Gnossienne" was applicable to all the pieces: "Monotous and white." Such reserve proved ideal for the shining, anti-romantic atmosphere Satie set about achieving.

Likewise, Tharaud played Maurice Ravel's "Mirrors" with elevated taste. Here he was less precise regarding dynamic markings, which often call for abrupt shifts between startling loudness and extreme quiet. As before, he overdid nothing. The virtuosity of "Night-Moths," "A Boat on the Ocean" and "Aubade of the Jester" drew no attention to itself. Overall atmosphere was paramount, with Tharaud excelling in the soft sweetness of "Sorrowful Birds" plus moments of calm in "The Valley of the Bells."

The encore was a tight, dapper account of Domenico Scarlatti's CQ Sonata in D Minor, K. 141.

Artner is a freelance critic.

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