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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas 109, 110. 111 – Alexandre Tharaud – Erato 3820 [CD] 61:59 [DVD] Film by Mariano Nante, 64:00), (11/2/18) ****1⁄2: 

(Alexandre Tharaud; Steinway Piano)

Refined and introspective reading of the last three Beethoven Piano Sonatas with both a studio version and a DVD live version filmed in a ruined house. 

In the DVD film portion of this double-release, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud plays three Beethoven Sonatas, opus 109,110, and 111 in an empty and dilapidated room. The camera tells us that this was once a grand residence that has fallen into hard times or perhaps suffered a catastrophe. In any case, the eye goes from neglect, disorder and ruin to perfect order, concentration and human purposes. It is an effective framing device even if derivative of rock music MTV stagings. I expect many viewers to consider it a welcome diversion from taking in a concert at elegant but sterile concert halls. The viewer can decide if the desolation of the backdrop is meant as a commentary on the state of classical music or whether it is just a way to enter a music suggestive of struggle, ruin and affirmation.

Portrait Alexandre Tharaud 1In any case, the piano, a magnificent Steinway, is in good repair. Our musician is completely at ease with both setting and music; he doesn’t so much as glance at the open sheet music. Everything is measured and under control; there is neither histrionic raging nor furrowed brow. In fact, there are no theatrics at all. His care and attention to detail would be exemplary in the person who ends up with the job of sweeping and repairing the building. Meanwhile, his task is nothing less than conveying the enormous depth of three of Beethoven’s greatest piano works.

Both Disc and film follow the convention of playing the three sonatas in sequence. The first two seem to belong together. In fact, the pianist allows only a second or two after the end of Opus 109 before leaping across a the circle of fifths to the warm Moderato of the 31st sonata in A flat major.

Alexandre Tharaud 3Of Tharaud’s technique, I have nothing but admiration. 18th century music has been a specialization of his, and his considerable work on Scarlatti, Rameau and Couperin have given him a sure feeling for melodic line, articulation and lyrical weightlessness.

These late pieces have more tunefulness than you would suppose; jazz syncopation and improvisatory tricks feature prominently in the cheerful allegros. The famous Late Beethoven gravitas a nd brooding is strangely absent. Of course, the final sonata is the outlier. The Arietta and especially the Adagio have trance-like passages of the greatest delicacy. I wouldn’t recommend the film for these ethereal passages, the room and even the musician is a distraction. With eyes closed, it feels like the music enjoins a detachment from the material substrate, a reprieve from the laws of physics and those of good housekeeping. At 15’43, Tharaud’s tempo is a bit faster than average, but the pianissimo is exquisite. I felt a bit hustled out of my trance.

The other grand slow movement is the third movement of Op. 109. Here Tharaud is at his best on one of Beethoven’s most serene utterances. The piano responds with more radiance, too, as if it knows that this room, and maybe all rooms, will again contain happiness. In fact, the film captures some light playing off the piano which reinforce the upward gaze of the music.

Alexandre Tharaud 4Remarkable also is how compact and Haydnesque the first two movements of this work are—not quite five and half minutes altogether, most of it in major key good spirits too.

It bears repeating that Tharaud is a magnificent pianist. The daunting score of the fugue in Opus 100 is just one of the significant challenges that he executes brilliantly. Perhaps his mastery is a product of having worked his way towards Beethoven from two directions: the heavy duty virtuosos repertoire (Rachmaninov, Ravel and Chopin) as well as the 18th century Baroque (especially French Baroque). He doesn’t need to work any novel angle on these testing pieces; Instead, we have a refined but thoughtful reading of works that express the composer’s emotional and aesthetic world at the penultimate chapter of his career. Erato can be commended for a first rate release.

—Fritz Balwit

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