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Concert review: Pianist Alexandre Tharaud transcends art

Alexandre Tharaud
Maine Today

By  Christopher Hyde  

It is rare that all the elements come together to transform a piano recital into a life-enhancing experience, but such was the case with French pianist Alexandre Tharaud at Hannaford Hall on Thursday night. Tharaud ended the evening with a magnificent performance of the Beethoven Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major, Opus 110 that eventually transcended the realm of art, turning the auditorium into what one audience member called a “refuge” from the horrors of the modern world.

Tharaud, 46, combines flawless technique with intensity, passion and an overview of music that makes him unusual to start with. (He is also a movie star. He performed the soundtrack for Michael Haneke’s emotional film “Amour,” which took first prize at the Cannes Film Festival.) But there is something more, a freshness of approach and an intellectual grasp seldom found in a younger musician. When one can combine the spark of youth with the wisdom of age, the result is something special indeed.

The entire program was a wonderland, but in the final fugue of the Beethoven sonata something clicked, taking the performance to an entirely new level. That fugue is one of the wonders of the world to begin with, where Beethoven shows Bach (whom he actually quotes) that there is still new territory to explore in that form.

The final bars of the fugue begin with a series of massive chords, played fortissimo. How Tharaud develops that power is a mystery, but it seemed as if the strings of the Steinway grand would snap. They clanged a bit as it was. After that trumpet call, the final statement of the theme went straight to heaven. The audience leaped to its feet before the final tone had died out, pitying anyone who wasn’t there.

I am not usually in favor of encores, especially after an experience such as the Beethoven 110, but Tharaud’s calm, thoughtful performance of a Bach Prelude in B Minor provided a welcome path back to earth.

The rest of the program served as a winding path to Beethoven, along high mountain ridges, such as the well-known Mozart Sonata in A Major, K.331, which was as delicate and well-balanced as a fine champagne, with a kick at the end in the form of the rousing “Turkish March” (Rondo alla Turca).

It was followed by six “Pièces de Clavecin” of Francois Couperin (1668-1733), striking in their modern-sounding musical imagery. Tharaud has mastered the intricate ornamentation of these works so that the trills and mordents become part of the music rather than a distraction.

The Schubert German Dances, D. 783, seldom performed in concert, were a revelation under Tharaud’s fingers, like newly discovered haiku by Keats or Shelley. The dances are little only in their length, full of invention, rapid mood swings, humor and Schubert’s characteristic modulations all the way around the circle of fifths. You could also dance to them, if you were so inclined.

A long round of applause should go to Portland Ovations for bringing an artist of this caliber to Portland.