Alexandre Tharaud plays JS Bach’s Goldberg variations

'Tharaud’s passagework is muscular but not always fleet'

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Erato
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Goldberg Variations
PERFORMER: Alexandre Tharaud
CATALOGUE NO: Erato 2564605177

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Many of the greatest pianists have recorded the Goldbergs. Glenn Gould’s iconic performances remain benchmarks (Alexandre Tharaud is undoubtedly inspired by them) but recordings range from Rudolf Serkin’s 1928 piano roll and other vintage accounts to more recent classics (including Igor Levit’s, Recording of the Month, p66), jazz-inspired versions and countless historically-informed performances on the harpsichord, not to mention many stylistically anachronistic ones.

No stranger to Baroque music, Tharaud has made eloquent recordings of Couperin, Rameau and Scarlatti, many of the strengths of which are present here, too. He is at his best in the more intimate, contemplative variations, where the tone is transparent and the phrasing lyrical and delicately ornamented. The more virtuosic movements present some challenges: Tharaud’s passagework is muscular but not always fleet; his left hand can be weighty, grounding the music rather than let it dance; and while he makes some daring attempts to highlight Bach’s almost jazzy syncopations, in so doing he tends to hammer and jab.

The bonus DVD films Tharaud’s performance of the work in the sleek, new auditorium designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, in Aix-en-Provence. The hall’s origami-like lines are dramatically floodlit, and the production plays with Caravaggian chiaroscuro. The camera zooms in on hands, keys, hammers and strings and exploits the Steinway’s curves and reflective surfaces to creative effect.

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Kate Bolton-Porciatti