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GRAMOPHONE (11/2015)
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Reviewer:  Jed Distler


‘You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practise, practise, practise.


And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.’ Those words, or others to that effect, have been ascribed to jazz legend Charlie Parker, and they easily apply to Alexandre Tharaud’s Bach. While the pianist has obviously scrutinised the Goldberg Variations with a fine-tooth comb, he basically hangs loose and flies free, letting detailed niceties fall into place without sounding the least bit studied or calibrated. It’s a performance, not a lecture.


The opening Aria is on the slow side (dragging? Never!), but the first five variations sprint from the starting gate, buoyed by perky left-hand accents. If Var 5 doesn’t quite sustain its opening pace, other cross-handed numbers such as Vars 14, 20 and 23 fuse a light harpsichord touch with unabashed pianistic bravura. Note, too, Var 7’s inflected embellishments, the woodwind-like left-hand articulation in the Fughetta Var 10, the pianist’s flexible, vocally oriented phrasing of Var 13’s long cantabile lines and his gorgeously tinted three-part texture throughout Var 15.


In contrast to interpretations that seek unity and continuity through rigorously considered tempo relationships (Glenn Gould’s 1981 remake, for example), Tharaud apparently aims to reveal each variation’s individual character. You especially hear this via Var 29’s flurries of notes, abetted by appropriately grandiose octave reinforcements, and in the Frenchoverture Var 16’s unorthodox elongation of the opening chord. For the record,


Tharaud observes each and every repeat. In short, his fresh voice and genuine musicality warrant placement in the vast Goldberg Variations discography’s top tier.

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