Alexandre Tharaud came to sudden fame with the release of a recording he made of Rameau harpsichord works. Finally, here was a pianist who dared to play this music on the piano and who dedicated his CD to the memory of Marcelle Meyer, whose records of the 1930s and 1950s had been remastered after over 20 years of neglect. Couperin, Scarlatti, Bach, Chopin, Thierry Pécou, Satie, Rachmaninov and Ravel followed, to create an extensive discography.

Ahead of his European tour with the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal and its conductor Yannick Nézét-Séguin, which starts towards the end of November, I met Tharaud in front of the Comédie française, sitting on a bench near the gardens of the Palais Royal, under the trees that the philosopher Emmanuel Berl had once contemplated from the terrace of his apartment.

Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

AL: In your essay Montrez-moi vos mains (“Show me your hands”), you speak about Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with whom you will soon be playing the Ravel Concerto for the left hand, in a way that soloists rarely speak about a conductor.

AT: When I started writing, I wanted to talk about my experience with conductors, but it didn't work in a book because the length was getting out of hand, so I decided to reduce it to a short chapter talking about just one conductor. The choice of Yannick was obvious, because he embodies everything I love in a conductor. I remember clearly the first time I played with him, in Philadelphia. Concerto for the left hand; rehearsal; start of the concerto. The piano comes in suddenly, with that infernal run. OK, so I play it often, so that run has gradually become less infernal for me. But still, the fear remains to some extent. So I dive in – and I see Yannick watching me closely, finger on his chin. He was there with me, supporting me in what, after all, remains a risk. And we came out well.

He does a lot of things, gives a lot of directions, but when he's on the podium, this is a conductor who is 100% with you and listens to you. I loved that first encounter and that love has been confirmed every time we have played together. When you're a soloist, you need to be supported, even carried. I've noticed how he behaves during rehearsals, how he absorbs people's needs, both of the soloist and of the orchestra. And that gives a working atmosphere that goes a long way to achieving togetherness. So as a soloist, you can give yourself completely, while still keeping control of your playing.

You also talk, without naming names, of less attentive conductors. Some are even known to inhibit their soloists.

Conductors who are incompatible with soloists are rare, but they do exist. The main problem with concerti is rehearsal time. When you're playing on your own, you are showing your own work and you have all the time you need to prepare. Playing a concerto is all too often like DIY, and that affects the conductor. It's not a problem of age, generation or career stage, but of accessibility, of personality. There are conductors who radiate warmth, others who don't. That's all. There are great conductors who sometimes don't have particularly wonderful conducting technique but who are listening so hard, who are so present with you and with the orchestra that everything works. Conductors are people who give orders, but at the same time, they are a medium through which all our energies – the orchestral players as well as the soloist – flow into the audience.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© François Goupil

Is the Concerto for the left hand really a concerto in the traditional sense of the word? It's too short to be a Sinfonia concertante, but it has something deeply unitary about it?

It's extraordinary to see how Ravel takes up a challenge, yet again. You say that maybe this isn't a concerto. In a way, that's correct, but look at it another way and it's completely wrong, because it's a kind of über-concerto. Other composers have tried to do it, and while it would be unfair to say that they came to grief, none of them succeeded in writing a masterpiece in the way Ravel did. When you play it, you feel all alone in those grand cadences, but at the same time, there are musicians with you, listening and ready to intervene. The piano part is as rich as the orchestral one and just as loud, all with a single hand! There is something of a conjuring trick in this work. Right up to the final cadence, which rises, rises... towards the light... and then once more, the conductor must be there to listen to the soloist, to carry him along even when the orchestra isn't playing and waiting for its entry. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is always there.

It must be difficult to find a good piano for this concerto: an instrument that is powerful but that sings, with long sustain and a docile keyboard...

Of course! When it comes to it, that's why this concerto isn't played all that often. And also, because it's difficult. When you come on stage, you have the feeling of being handicapped, of having to fight. I must have played the piece a hundred times, and I've felt that every time – but it's also what I love about the piece.

You need a piano with every quality imaginable, which has to be well adjusted. For several years now, I've seen a big improvement in this area; there's more plurality. That's why I often play on a Bösendorfer or a Yamaha, to show that there isn't just one brand of piano: other styles of piano sound deserve to be heard, and one shouldn't be stuck rigidly in place. And the hall needs a favourable acoustic. I've played the concerto in Germany recently, with the NDR Orchestra. In Kiel, the acoustic was dry and much more difficult than in Lübeck, where the acoustic was excellent. Everything goes very quickly in this concerto, and when you don't achieve the right sonic balance straight away, it's too late to retrieve the situation. Having said which, it's not so different for a Mozart concerto, but really, with Ravel, there's a real sense of the performance, of the challenge.

Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

At least, at the Paris Philharmonie, you're going to have an excellent acoustic...

I still need to learn to tame it. So far, I've played there with an orchestra only once, the Rachmaninov second concerto. In rehearsal, everything sounded magnificent, but in the concert itself, I had the feeling that the piano wasn't really making itself heard above the orchestra. But I'm wondering whether that was my own fault: since everything sounded so easy in rehearsal, maybe I didn't try hard enough in the concert to achieve a big piano sound. Also, having 500 of the audience behind you is relatively uncomfortable: I'm playing for people and so it annoys me to play for a part of the audience who can't hear me as well. In any case, that first experience has put me on guard.

The Left hand is played far less often than the Concerto in G major, and yet it has a big effect on audiences...

I play it a lot, because it's still relatively unknown. French musicians are often asked to play French music when we travel abroad, so one might as well choose this concerto. It goes down incredibly well in the United States; it makes a huge impact on audiences. It's the thunderous nature of those 18 minutes of dramatic progression that end like the strike of a guillotine that does it, as well as the spectacular effect of playing with just one hand.

It's hard for the pianist, but also for the orchestra. The tiniest failing is audible, which makes it far tougher than the works of a lot of other composers...

You need virtuoso winds, musicians excellent at reading their parts, a conductor who is accurate as well as romantic and expressive... With the Orchestre Métropolitain and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, all the requirements are in place. I've already played this concerto with him in Philadelphia and in Rotterdam and I'm delighted to play with this Canadian team, who deserve to be better known here in Europe. The first thing that's needed is to keep to the tempo at the same time as playing freely, which is not straightforward. You mustn't slow down and play in a single gesture, especially in the great final cadence. With Ravel, you have to give everything and keep tight control of nearly everything.

And it's true that with Ravel, errors affect the rest of the performance far more than with, say, Debussy. It's crucial to create colours that are often missing with both orchestras and pianists. You have to keep it in your mind the whole time: the colour palette, the timbre, making the piano part of the orchestra, thinking both of the body of the instrument and of its brilliance.

Do you not want to record this concerto?

It's been talked about for a good fifteen years. For now, planning problems have caused all the projects to founder, the fault being sometimes my own. Of course, one can fail with recordings. I say “one”, but really, I mean “I”; the point is, everything has to be in place to make sure that the result is as good as it possibly can be. So many recordings of the Ravel concertos have missed the mark these last few years, because they're too fast, with a poor orchestra, without the right conductor, or because record labels have put together soloists and ensembles who don't suit each other. And when you're recording, you're immersed in the fine detail, whereas you need to play to the big picture. Reconciling these opposites is so difficult that I'm waiting for all the stars to be lined up before I attempt a recording.

Click here to see listings of all the concerts in Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal's European tour.


This interview was sponsored by the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal.

Translated from French by David Karlin