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Chopin: Pr?ludes

by Tim Pfaff .
Wednesday Aug 27, 2008
Pianist Alexandre Tharaud.
Pianist Alexandre Tharaud.   (Source:Courtesy Harmonia Mundi)

Even though his recordings for Harmonia Mundi have ranged from Couperin and Rameau to Kodaly and Ravel, it's tempting to think of Alexandre Tharaud as a Chopin pianist, so regularly has the Frenchman returned to the music of the quintessential composer for his instrument. His new CD of the Opus 28 Preludes, that seminal work in which all of Chopin is on display, has caused a considerable stir.

Though Tharaud's interpretations of the extraordinary miniatures are nothing if not individual, the extent to which they hew to the contemporary French inclination toward rowdy, big-boned, take-no-prisoners Chopin comes almost as a surprise. What gives them such high definition is Tharaud's conviction, spelled out in the disc's fascinating accompanying notes, that these extraordinarily familiar, listener-friendly pieces are "shot through with violence and death," mortality-obsessed works conceived during the composer's trip to Majorca in a futile attempt to deal with his tuberculosis.

So from the agitated arpeggiations of the first, C Major prelude until the railing defiance of the last, in D minor, darkness prevails. Even in the lacey textures of the vivace G Major, there's a sense of febrile looking over the shoulder. It's not a view of the work I'd want for everyday, but its integrity is beyond question.

The contrasts among the individual preludes are written large, yet, as a result, some compelling new groupings emerge. A truly foreboding D-flat Major Prelude, which uncovers the ominous aspects of the famous raindrops, is flanked by a chillingly fleet, suffocatingly ingrown E-flat minor Prelude and an equally desperate B-flat minor, trying to outrun an unseen, pursuing force of palpable malevolence.

The tension is pretty much unrelieved, and by the end of the cycle, its relentlessness can feel oppressive, with some unwanted musical side effects. The C minor Prelude's crushing opening is too weighty to allow for an effective tapering off to a decelerated pianissimo, and the furious drive from there to the final prelude starts to feel less compelling than simply breathless.

Tharaud's playing is spectacular, and the interpretation works on its own terms. But it sent me back to the other important recent recording of the Preludes, by 24-year-old Rafal Blechacz (DG). On first listening, it's almost as if the Polish winner of the 2006 Chopin Competition is offering no interpretation of the Preludes, so straightforward is his playing. But it gets under your skin in an altogether different way, with a subtlety at the farthest remove from Tharaud's approach.

Although he's already his own man musically, Blechacz reminds me of Mitsuko Uchida in his capacity to sound all the notes in what feels like exactly the way they appear on the printed page. That supreme clarity of texture brings the dissonant, disjointed quality of the A minor Prelude into high focus without a hint of anything added, let alone exaggeration. In the end, I find it more haunting and memorable than all of the more explicit terror in Tharaud's more extroverted interpretation.

Thrilled as I was by Tharaud's Preludes, I was glad when they were over. I suspect I'll return to Blechacz's often because they linger so potently in my memory.

The virtues of Tharaud's more conspicuously blazing talent could hardly be more apparent than in his other new CD, of piano music by Thierry Pecou. The 43-year-old French composer has written a concerto and a major solo work for the pianist, and there's no mistaking why: their two sensibilities are in complete musical synch.

As its title suggests, L'Oiseau innumerable, Pecou's 2006 concerto for piano and orchestra, has an enormous debt to the music of Olivier Messiaen. Yet it has a style, a mind, and a profile of its own, and the way in which it is most like Messiaen is how colorful and listenable it is first time out.

There's enormous range in the piano writing, from the percussive to the evanescent, and Tharaud expounds it all with dazzling clarity. Pecou's keen sense of instrumental balances and cunning musical architecture keep the work tirelessly interesting.

The most powerful work on the CD, Outre-memoire, variances, is a rewriting for solo piano of a work Pecou first wrote, at Tharaud's urging, for piano, three other instruments and art installation (if I'm reading the somewhat baffling notes correctly). It represents a solemn response to the tragic history of the Atlantic slave trade, and both African and Caribbean musics infiltrate it. But, as elsewhere, the piece has its own, strong profile, and Tharaud plays it with hypnotic concentration.

An even broader range of keyboard colors and sonorities is heard in the Petit Livre pour clavier from 1995, in which Tharaud also plays the organ, spinet and clavichord. The same keen imagination informs a real Rameau Sarabande and Pecou's latter-day take on it.

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