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Alexandre Tharaud: Thought And Action

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page C05

Alexandre Tharaud's Saturday afternoon piano recital at the Terrace Theater offered an exemplary mixture of bravura virtuosity and cool intelligence.

This fine young artist, yet another brilliant adornment to the Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series, devoted the first half of his program to music of the 18th century -- J.S. Bach's transcriptions of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, and a long Suite in A by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Alexandre Tharaud's fine performance of both baroque and 20th-century pieces was a welcome addition to the Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series. (Eric Manas -- Washington Performing Arts Society)

The Bach arrangements were notable for their mixture of dewy, lustrous piano sonorities, in the style of such legendary mid-20th-century pianists as Harold Bauer and Edwin Fischer, and the energetic, aggressively contrapuntal clarity associated with Glenn Gould -- two radically different ways of playing baroque music that Tharaud reconciled neatly. I particularly liked the way he implied the presence of an orchestra in the Marcello arrangement; his whole manner of playing changed when he moved from solo keyboard music to passages that were originally intended to be played by a full ensemble, growing grander and more resonant.

In the United States, knowledge of Rameau's music is largely confined to musicians and scholars. America is missing a lot, as Tharaud demonstrated in the Suite in A from the "Nouvelles Suites de Pieces de Clavecin." This is ornate, decorative, fantastically inventive music and it was played in high style, trills hovering and fluttering like hummingbirds. The final movement -- a sturdy, tuneful gavotte and variations -- was once a popular encore (it was recorded several times in the early 20th century) and ought to be brought back more often. The melody, once heard, will not leave you alone: It is one of those reiterative fragments, like Corelli's "Folia" or Bach's Chaconne, that win the listener over through a mixture of insistence and irresistibility.

After intermission, Tharaud jumped a century and a half or so and devoted the rest of his program entirely to music by Maurice Ravel. A piano teacher of mine once described "Gaspard de la Nuit" as the most difficult piece ever written. I don't know about that -- there are a lot of crushingly challenging, clatteringly empty display pieces out there -- but it is certainly among the most difficult works worth learning and playing. But it cannot sound difficult: If "Gaspard" is merely overpowered, it is ruined. As tough and terrifying as they are, the three movements of "Gaspard" (and especially the finale, "Scarbo," the toughest of them all) must seem positively offhanded, as though the pianist were merely sharing some vividly imaginative musical tales with his audience.

If Tharaud was not quite the sonic magician some other interpreters of "Gaspard" have proved, he brought many attributes to his performance -- a tart blend of modernism and swooning sentiment to the opening "Ondine"; a spent, ghastly bleakness to the central "Le Gibet" (which here seemed an answer to Chopin's so-called "Raindrop" Prelude); and a mercurial fire to "Scarbo" that was just as winningly weird as the piece itself. And Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante defunte," which opened the second half of the program, was merely beautiful -- welling, straightforward, heartfelt, a work without a wasted note, played without an ostentatious gesture.

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