'Striking' pianists treat fans at recitals

Alexandre Tharaud
The Calgary Herald

By Kenneth Delong 

In the years between piano competitions, the Honens International Piano Competition likes to present various events to keep alive the interest of Calgary's devoted followers of the world of classical piano. This year, a competition off-year, Honens presented a weeklong mini-festival that brought together previous winners of the competition and new pianists to Calgary, all in the context of a celebration of music related to the First World War.

On Saturday there were two events, the first in the afternoon, in which well-known columnist Alex Ross, the author of the history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, was presented in conversation with Eric Friesen on the topic of music and the war.

Following a stimulating and well-planned conversation/interview, there was a short two-piano recital that included Samson Tsoy and Pavel Kolesnikov, the latter the winner of the last Honens competitions. This proved to be a real gem of a recital, including superbly delivered accounts of Debussy's En blanc et noir and a four-handed version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Both pianists are highly concentrated performers, alive to every nuance of both works, engaging its modern textures with understanding and complete conviction. The Debussy work was performed with a tight ensemble, as if there really was just one performer, with the virtuoso figurations flowing freely and with completely abandon. While one could not help missing Stravinsky's marvellous orchestral textures, the four-handed version of The Rite of Spring permitted the listener to focus upon the structural rather than the colouristic elements of the music, with the original harmonies and rhythms of this celebrated piece well to the fore. The performance completely captivated the audience. 

In the evening there was a solo concert by the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. Now in his mid-40s, Tharaud has emerged as a pianist with a distinctive personality, evident in his many recordings that embrace a wide repertoire. Still, it might be said that he has had particular success in French music of the early 20th century, a period in which the music itself is uniquely refined and original, qualities that also characterize Tharaud's playing.

The program was divided into two distinct halves, the first devoted to Viennese classics by Mozart and Beethoven, the second to Satie and Ravel. The second half was by far the more satisfying. Here Tharaud's refined sense of tone, ability to play very softly, and sense of intimacy served him well, enabling him to deliver hauntingly beautiful versions of three of Satie's Gnossiennes, as well as wonderful moments in Ravel's Miroirs, which was presented complete.

It was a treat to hear the Ravel, which is mostly encountered in excerpts. Especially in the opening atmospheric Noctuelles and concluding La vallee des cloches, the tones colours were often magic and the swirl of the music a wonderful impressionistic haze. There was much to admire in the other pieces as well, although there were rough moments in both Une barque sur l'ocean and Alborada del gracioso.

In sum, this was distinguished playing of striking individuality, and a notable change from conventional North American performances of these great pieces.

The Viennese music came across, ultimately, as precious and, frankly, a bit odd, especially in the mannered account of Mozart's well-known A major sonata with the Turkish rondo. Even in Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110, the playing drew attention to itself rather than the large shaping of the music, with much attention to the individual "special moment." The final fugal movement, however, did achieve the needed sense of grandeur, especially in the final pages.

Tharaud is a pianist with a virtuoso technique and great poise. He can do anything he chooses to do. But sometimes what he chooses appears to emanate from a musical personality interested more in itself than from gestures stemming from the notated score. As performances, both of the sonatas left me perplexed, but it must be also confessed, intrigued.