Alexandre Tharaud

Review for International Piano
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Wednesday 4 February , 7.30pm

The excellent and increasingly widespread reputation of Alexandre Tharaud derives in part from the clever, concentrated approach to repertoire evident both in his concert programmes and his recordings for Harmonia Mundi. Following a specialisation in French music from Couperin to Thierry P├ęcou, his recent expansion into the overcrowded world of Chopin interpretation has been well judged. With an instantly recognisable sound and attack, Tharaud's Chopin recordings – namely of the Waltzes and Preludes – have succeeded in shedding genuine new light on these well-worn pathways.

Unsurprisingly, then, the French pianist's choice for his South Bank debut in February included the Chopin preludes, together with an innovative programme of Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin intertwined with a selection from Couperin himself. Beginning with the Chopin, while the interpretation presented was very much of a piece with his recent disc, the mastery of the composer's subtly undulating forms so evident in the recording seemed to have temporarily vanished. In the first, C major, prelude, for example, in place of the lithe, weaving dance of the recording, the changes of pace came across as awkward and lurching. Similarly, the trade-mark staccato that seemed so illuminating of G major prelude rattled awkwardly in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Too much pedal in the F-sharp major, too little in the C-sharp minor, it wasn't until we reached the soothing reaches of the "Raindrop" prelude that Tharaud's intentions and actions really caught up with each other, leading to some very strong playing in the crashing G minor prelude and the whirlgig E-flat. After a stunning tour de force D minor, most of the disappointment was forgotten. And in any case, I'd much rather listen to interesting pianist failing to get it quite right than a dull one simply failing to get it wrong.

For the Ravel and Couperin, though, Tharaud was firmly back in the zone. With his penchant for emphasising the mechanistic tendency of the French tradition, all the while squeezing poetry through the cracks, he presented as perfect a programme as one could wish for. Suffice to say that the marble of Ravel's Tombeau was certainly gleaming, while the intimate manoeuvrings of its nominal resident spirit were given a well deserved public airing.

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