How clever of Alexandre Tharaud to open his QEH concert with Schubert’s Moments musicaux, salon pieces which combine charm and tenderness with an unsettling edginess to create Schubert’s emotional and musical landscape in microcosm. From the opening notes of the first of the suite, Tharaud imbued the music with intimacy and set the tone for the whole evening, even in the more extrovert sentences of Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” from Miroirs. This was piano playing which encouraged concentrated listening.

Alexandre Tharaud © Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

The Schubert was rich in song-lines, unexpected highlighting of interior melodies and bass details, and a delicacy of touch and sound which had us leaning in more closely to listen to every detail. Even in the more agitated and declamatory movements (4 and 5), Tharaud never lost sight of the intrinsic character of Schubert’s writing.

With our attention fully engaged and curious for more, he then played his own transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor. Perhaps because the great theme has become synonymous with Visconti’s film Death in Venice, the piano transcription had a filmic quality, and could quite easily have been taken for a soundtrack if one didn’t know the original from which it sprang. Tharaud is following in a great tradition of appropriating orchestral music for the piano – from Liszt’s Beethoven symphonies onwards – and his transcription is faithful to the original with the addition of details, in particular judicious use of the pedal, when the texture and emotion of the music demands it. The grand sweep of the original was there, but somehow this version did not wholly convince, though nonetheless sensitively played.

From the turbulence of Mahler to the delicacy of Couperin’s keyboard writing to begin the second half, and a return to the concentrated intimacy of the opening of the concert. These short works, originally scored for harpsichord, were brought into new focus on a modern concert grand with jewel-like colours, wit and quirky humour, fluttering ornaments and precise articulation, redolent of harpsichord technique but never imitating it. Indeed, on the piano the music sounds almost ‘modern’ and particularly harmonic, especially in Tharaud’s lyrical use of the pedal to create delightful dynamic shadings or to highlight interesting inner voices. I found this ‘romantic’ take on the Baroque most engaging as Tharaud’s sensitive touch revealed surprising emotional depth in the more stately movements (“Les Baricades misterieuses”, for example).

Maurice Ravel admired the French Baroque keyboard composers, as his Le tombeau de Couperin demonstrates. Miroirs is a suite of six imaginative and characterful sound pictures, to which Tharaud brought the same musical sensitivity and clarity of touch as was evident in the Couperin. Each movement was carefully characterised, from the frenetic flutterings of night-time moths in “Noctuelles”, to the swell of the sea (“Une barque sur l’ocean”) and the rambunctiousness of the “Alborada del gracioso”. The final movement, “La vallée des cloches”, was hypnotic and meditative.