Tharaud brings Gallic charm to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”

Wed Feb 14, 2018 at 11:56 am

Alexandre Tharaud performed Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center.

Alexandre Tharaud released a curious recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2015, around the time of his last recital in Washington. Washington Performing Arts brought the French pianist back on Tuesday to play the complete work at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where he made his local debut in 2005.

The performance, in many ways different from his recording, had all the hallmarks of Tharaud’s handling of Baroque music: dancing rhythmic verve, gossamer softness, and quixotic exploration.

Tharaud has spoken before of his admiration for the work of historical music specialists, who have given us a better idea of the instruments Bach wrote for. Although he is not a harpsichordist, the feel of the instrument came through in many variations, even though he applied the sustaining pedal liberally and played with endless varieties of attack and dynamic.

His careful crafting of sound paid the greatest dividends in the hand-crossing variations, a constant reminder to the performer on modern piano that Bach conceived the piece for a harpsichord with two separate manuals. In these variations, which generally come just before the variations in canon form, Tharaud used the modern piano’s complexity of tone to distinguish the crossing voices in uncanny ways.

Many of the variations had a recognizably French cast in Tharaud’s hands, a reminder that Bach was an avowed admirer of French keyboard music. Florid embellishments clouded the Giga (Variation 7), for example, in a way reminiscent of Tharaud’s playing of Couperin and Rameau, and the rhythmic freedom of the slow section of the Ouverture (Variation 16) gave it a Gallic improvisatory feel.

Unlike on the recording, he did not observe all the repeats in every variation, and there seemed to be no reason behind those he did take. This felt like an attempt to weave together many of the variations, with the beginning of one following immediately on the end of another in a way that almost made them indistinguishable.

Bach’s purpose in so many of his compositions is encyclopedic and didactic, here exhausting the possible ways that a performer could make a variation on a repeated bass line. Tharaud’s approach, in one way,  recalled that the use of such a skill was principally in improvisation. Technical fault lines appeared, especially as Tharaud rushed impatiently through some variations, creating minor slips here and there, as well as a more serious lapse in the opening bars of Variation 23, perhaps because of a late page turn.

The rewards of this daring approach more than compensated in other ways, for example, in the fluttery smoothness of the runs in Variation 26, continuous between the two hands, with the other hand answering in martial trumpet calls. The whirring blur of the trills in Variation 28 was the highlight of the performance, seemingly uninterrupted by the movement of Tharaud’s hands to voice the melodic lines all around them.

For all his quizzical playfulness, Tharaud struck a serious tone right from the start: no rambling speech from the concert presenter, just the embrace of darkness and silence in the hall. The latter was not always honored by an audience restless with coughing, bag rustling, and watch alarms.

One Response to “Tharaud brings Gallic charm to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations””

  1. Posted Feb 15, 2018 at 11:02 pm by Robert Abbott

    I thought this review was exactly right. –and unfortunately so in the case of the rustled bag and watch alarm. I was sitting in front of the latter and thought I’d have to walk out. Happily it stopped and Mons. Tharaud continued unruffled.

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