Recital: Bach - Goldberg Variations, Alexendre Tharaud pp 10/11/15 SJSS

I popped into St John's Smith Square after work to hear this young Frenchman tackle the slipperiest work in the vast catalogue of Bach's output for keyboard.  The hall was, sadly, about half full but many were French speakers so I felt I might be onto something.  I was prompted by a favourable Gramophone review and a desire to hear the Variations tackled with a little imagination.  I have  sizeable collection of Goldbergs and go back to Hewitt, Gould (both studio versions) and Hantai (his first recording) a good deal.  Perahia, Pinnock and Sokolov sit in the memory too.  There are monsters in there too - Tureck, Gavirlov and Schiff's recent Proms performance stand as testament to how a well meaning but dogmatic creative intent can undermine this music.

Tharaud wasn't furnished with the best piano for Bach though when he wanted a full throated sound he got one but it was rather richer than many would have chosen I guess.

There's a wonderful rapt quality to his playing and attention to the keyboard, no show boating and little hurry.  Characterising the performance I would make some general points.

Tharaud was not scared of doing things at the extremes (though nothing strays into bad taste) or pushing the traditional balance of voices or phrasing out of kilter to add new half-seen structures, or indeed emphasising inner voices to bring out new relationships and harmonies.  On top to all that he has a startling fluency and his approach is pacey where the music will bear it.  Finally I welcomed his warm slightly clipped tone - not too lush I imagine on a sparer instrument it would have more bite & sharper focus.  The blurb says he's been thinking about this work a long time - it shows.  But then again which artist would tackle this monster without some very careful preparation.

There was copious applause - despite a lot of repeats we weren't in the glorious hall of St John's for too long. And I dare say I'll listen to his new CD very soon.  Probably with the music in front of me because he's opened up new vistas and views in a work I though I knew well.  Tharaud is a name to watch for I think (though his next CD/recital will be the test of his range and ambition).  But there's much to enjoy in his reading of this Leviathan.


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