Despite forecasts of gales, there was a virtually full house at the Wigmore Hall for a lunchtime recital given by French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. The programme offered a tempting combination of a rarely-performed Bach keyboard concerto, Schubert’s much-loved Moments Musicaux, and Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor.

Alexandre Tharaud © Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

Bach’s Concerto in D minor is in fact a transcription of an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello. In his transcription, Bach makes his own mark on the music by taking a second-rate concerto and creating a keyboard work which amply demonstrates his adaptive acuity with its filigree melody and orchestral textures in the opening movement – a slow movement of exquisite, elegant simplicity, and a lively, contrapuntal finale.

Tharaud offered an overtly romantic reading of the work; the strongly marked octaves of the first sentence smoothed out with legato articulation and understated dynamics, thus robbing the opening of its stature. The choice of tempo was lively, and, with better articulation and clarity, would have made for a vibrant opener. Instead, articulation was often muddied by too much pedal, and excessive ornamentation obscured the strong melodic lines and textures of this opening movement. Some interesting voicing in the left hand was not entirely convincing, and the final cadenza of the movement was too heavy-handed. The Adagio is surely one of the most beautiful slow movements Bach wrote, with a limber solo line atop a pulsating bass line. Sadly, more fussy decoration and rather saccharine rubato diminished the spare elegance of this movement. Fortunately, the finale was more successful: fleet-fingered and dancing, with some surprising voicing in the left hand.

The six Moments Musicaux are amongst Schubert’s best-loved works for piano, and rank amongst his “late” masterpieces in their profound emotional content and shifting colours. Tharaud created a sense of intimacy from the outset, with gentle dynamic shading and lyrical cantabile playing, reminding us that these were works composed to be performed in the salon, or at home amongst friends. But once again poor articulation and suspect pedaling resulted in a loss of clarity, particularly in the more up tempo movements (nos. 3 and 5), and the whole suite seemed rather under-played.

Chopin composed his Fantasy in F minor in 1841, when he was at the peak of his powers. The work is entirely original in its structure and follows no pre-existing genre, with its strongly characterized and contrasting elements and vertiginous virtuosic passages. If the darkly funereal opening was too polite, Tharaud caught the fantastical nature of the work, bringing together the contrasting elements and themes. He displayed technical assuredness in the rapid double octave passages, but at times quality of sound was compromised, and the grandeur and poignancy of Chopin’s music was not always understood. An unmistakably emphatic cadence brought the work to a close.

For an encore, Tharaud opted for Scarlatti – a keyboard sonata which called to mind the energetic strumming of a guitar. In contrast to the previous pieces, it was played with acute attention to articulation, scant use of pedal, and sparkling clarity and wit.