Proms Chamber Music 2: Alexandre Tharaud, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Precise, philosophical piano-playing

By Adrian Jack
Saturday 14 December 2013 04:20
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The second of the Proms chamber- music concerts was a welcome chance to hear the young French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. You might have done better to listen to him on the radio than suffer the discomfort of the V&A lecture theatre, with its narrow benches and weird acoustic.

Tharaud is a fastidious pianist, as his exquisitely chosen programme testified. It was arranged in three groups of pieces, each beginning with a sonata by Scarlatti. Tharaud played Scarlatti's well-known E major Sonata, K380, so gently that it sounded like a miniature performed by fairies – lovely in its way, though it is unlikely that Scarlatti meant it to sound so frail and dreamlike, as it was, after all, intended for the harpsichord.

Then came two pieces by Chabrier, arguably the father of French piano music, whom Ravel described as "the most profoundly personal, the most French of our composers". Chabrier helped to establish the fashion for Spanish-flavoured music among the French (Tharaud played his "Habañera") as well as drawing, in "Danse villageoise", on the popular style of his native country. The "Danse" usually comes across as robust and more than a bit relentless, but Tharaud recognised its subtleties with a nimble, incisive and dynamically varied approach.

Opening his second group of pieces, Scarlatti's Sonata in A minor, K3, slipped by in a succession of delicious little shocks – scales, chromatic progressions and percussive thumps all punctuating more regular passages of delicate counterpoint. It led very effectively into five pieces from Federico Mompou's Musica Callada – ultra-delicate music with a philosophical austerity about it, expressed in the most sophisticated choices of harmony, sometimes quite sour, which made you suspect Mompou never did anything purely for pleasure. The second of his Paisajes, describing a lakeside landscape, was more conventionally impressionistic, but still precise in its choice of notes as well as beautifully economical.

Precision, with Scarlatti, is the name of the game, and the last sonata Tharaud chose was a vigorous C major piece (K514), with hands sometimes wide apart and the bass growling very low. It was followed by Ravel's "Une barque sur l'océan", which you might have taken as another interpretation of Mompou's "landscape", for Ravel's "ocean" is nothing like the high seas that inspired Debussy's La mer, but essentially still; and, finally, "Alborada del gracioso", not quite as cheeky or flamboyant as I would have liked, but then, perhaps I was wilting.

This recital will be re-broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday at 1pm

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