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Alexandre Tharaud’s expressive piano at La Maison Française

By Charles T. Downey,

Where some pianists thrill with fanfaronade, Alexandre Tharaud teases out the piano’s delicate side, weaving threads of sound into exquisite lace patterns. The French pianist returned to La Maison Française on Friday night, in the intimate auditorium where he gave his last solo recital here in 2008.

Tharaud’s program opened with five of the 18 sonatas on his superlative Domenico Scarlatti recording, released last year. The Scarlatti sonatas often show up on recitals as flashy encores, but Tharaud reads them more like expressive tableaux, landscapes traced with a few strokes of ink. He has written that he chose from more than 500 such sonatas by Scarlatti by “allowing myself to be guided by my fingers.” The zippier sonatas certainly sat easily under his agile hands, but it was the reclusive melancholy of K. 481 that stood out for its exquisitely shaded shyness.

The piece paired with Scarlatti was supposed to be Tharaud’s arrangement of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, but it was sadly replaced by three movements from Ravel’s “Miroirs.” Sad only in the sense of being deprived of something new: Tharaud wrung every scintilla of color and light from Ravel’s descriptive music, like the bluesy chirrups and tweedles of the “Sad Birds” and the shimmering main rolling under the “Boat on the Ocean.”

Crushing fortissimo power is the only weapon missing from Tharaud’s arsenal, making for some disappointing climaxes in the bigger pieces on the second half. His way with the slow, dreamy sections of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 was the highlight, along with a berserk rendition of the enigmatic final movement, played without much sustaining pedal. Liszt’s “Funerailles” made similar impressions, mostly because of its poetic slow section. After a first encore, Bach’s arrangement of the slow movement from a concerto by Alessandro Marcello, Tharaud gave a taste of his debonair new cabaret CD, with a transcription of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”

Charles T. Downey is a freelance writer.

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