The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Alexandre Tharaud’s new Chopin anthology leaves you with mixed reactions but grows on you

March 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I really like the young French pianist Alexandre Tharaud (below). I consider him one of the more original and outstanding young piano talents. And I hope we will get to hear him in a live recital in Madison soon.

Here’s are various link to biographies, some of which you will have to translate from French:

To my ears, Tharaud has much in common with an older pianist who is also a favorite of mine: Andras Schiff. Both possess precision and a clarity of tone that make their playing seem like drinking a refreshing glass of cold water.

Perhaps that comes from how steeped both pianists are in music of the Baroque era.

I have especially liked Tharaud’s modern piano versions of music by Rameau, Couperin and J.S. Bach. And I also like his Chopin waltzes and preludes, quirky as well as some of them are. He offers personal interpretations and often makes the familiar music new, whether you agree or disagree with his interpretation.

So I really wanted to be taken in ecstasy, sweep away if you will, by his new album: “Chopin – An Intimate Journal.”

One reason is that it also marks his debut on Virgin Records, a label, affiliated with EMI, and means a move form his former home of Harmonia Mundi. And I want him to succeed.

Now, I don’t know the facts behind the move. It seems to me HM did very well by Tharaud, who has also recorded Poulenc’s chamber music for the Naxos label. But maybe the move was provoked by HM because Tharaud wasn’t selling enough. Or maybe it means that Tharaud initiated the move because he will get a much wider listening and stronger distribution and sales.

So I wanted to really like or even love this album.

Yet at first it disappointed me. The so-called “intimate journal” is little more than a few sentences about which piece he learned when and from whom. There is very little about what the music itself means to him or will mean to others. Surely, there is more to say about the great Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49, other than it was his “party piece” during his conservatory years.

In addition, I really did not want this otherwise excellent and unpredictable choice of pieces – with mazurkas mixed in with ballades and nocturnes and fantasies – to end or climax with two of the most banal chestnuts of Chopin’s output: the Fantaisie-Impromptu (“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”) and the Nocturne in E-flat major Op. 9, No. 2 (the “Eddie Duchin” nocturne, nicknamed for the big band leader and popular pianist who used it as his theme).

I also thought including the little heard rarities like Ecossaises (Scottish Dances) and Contredanse in B flat major should have given way to more substantive pieces that are not well-known. Those pieces are on par with the thoroughly forgettable Bolero and Tarantella, although they are blessedly shorter and rewarding as curiosities.

But that said, I found the album grew on me after repeated listenings.

I like the playing. For some it will have harder edge. But it is a good alternative to the soft and lyrical Chopin.

And I very much like the recital format that drifts among various pieces – famous ballades interspersed by less well-known mazurkas plus relatively unknown works like the posthumously published, little heard Largo and Nocturne in C-sharp minor. These days I am less interested in listening to ALL the ballades or ALL the waltzes or ALL the scherzi or ALL the etudes in one sitting.

Here he is playing that little known Largo:

So, in the end, where am I?

Well, I started out being disappointed because my expectations were so high.

But the more I have listened to the CD, the more I like the music, though I still would much rather have had a different impromptu (A-flat or F-sharp would be my choices) and a different nocturne (E major, Op. 62, No. 2 or G minor Op. 15) to wind up the album – or maybe even the third or fourth scherzo — although maybe those clichéd works are exactly what Virgin’s marketing department wanted to appeal to the broader public and boost sales.

Anyway, this much is sure: The concept is great even if the execution is somewhat flawed. Still, this is one of the more noteworthy, intriguing and distinguished Chopin albums to come out to mark this 200th anniversary year of Chopin’s birth.

Is it the best we can expectt? Maybe not.

But it is very far from being the worst or the most predictable.

And that says something, or even a lot.

Get it and listen to it. It will grow on you too.

But before you buy, here’s a sample:

And let me know what you think about Tharaud in general and about his Chopin in specific.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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