The stage was set at (Le) Poisson Rouge: a royal blue curtain and a brilliant red light contrasted nicely with the shine of the black and white piano. Simple yet bold, the stage was akin to a Mondrian painting. And as Scarlatti’s notes rolled off Alexandre Tharaud’s fingers, this striking visual matched the crisp performance perfectly.

Alexandre Tharaud © Marco Borggreve
Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

Alexandre Tharaud, a French pianist, admitted he has an incredible affinity for Italian Baroque music. Performing five of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, Tharaud played meticulously, sounding out each note with purpose. In the slower movements, soft, single notes were like muted bells, while in the last and final sonata—taken at a cutthroat pace!—each note was played decisively. Tharaud never skipped a beat. Even in the fourth sonata, which was slow yet playful with its syncopated rhythm, the sonata remained distinctly Baroque, decorated with trills throughout. In this demanding set, Tharaud achieved a clean, brisk sound perfect for this Baroque repertoire.

But Tharaud’s severe discipline, which produced a pristine performance of Scarlatti’s works, gave way to strong, weighty colours ripe with dissonance in Debussy’s music. When performing excerpts from Book I of Debussy’s Préludes, Tharaud threw his whole weight behind each chord, letting all of Debussy’s tones wash together and hang heavy in the air. The best example was in the second prélude: Tharaud traveled up and down the keyboard, just as fast as the fifth of Scarlatti’s sonatas. But this time, the sound was muddled and messy, just like a gust of wind in a heady storm.

During La cathédrale engloutie (“The Sunken Cathedral”), Tharaud’s finesse shone through. Slumped over the piano, Tharaud’s body shrunk with the sound as it faded into silence. And in the final chords, Tharaud’s playing was so delicate it looked like he was merely dusting off the keys of the piano.

Closing the performance with a selection of foxtrots and bluesy piano songs, Tharaud dedicated the final part of his concert to Parisian cabaret. Specifically, Tharaud gave a nod to Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof), a famous cabaret in Paris throughout the 1920s and 30s. Most notably, it was a gathering place for the avant-garde arts scene. Writers, artists and musicians all gathered there to listen to all sorts of music, from classical to cabaret, but especially jazz—a culture that dominated Paris nightclubs in the 1920s. People like the poet Jean Cocteau and the composer Darius Milhaud (who wrote a ballet-farce with the same name as the bar), plus Pablo Picasso, Francis Poulenc, Clément Doucet, Cole Porter, Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie, were just a few of this bar’s regular patrons.

Performing three of Jean Wiéner’s songs and Clément Doucet’s Chopinata, a piece that had some of the audience members giggling at the syncopated versions of Chopin's overly dramatic themes, you could almost see the glee on Tharaud’s face. Flirting with artists of his Parisian past, Tharaud transformed (Le) Poisson Rouge into a smoky French café, not unlike Le Boeuf sur le toit itself.