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Johann Sebastian Bach Keyboard Concertos (piano: Alexandre Tharaud) Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Very much a pianist’s take on these wonderfully life-affirming concertos.

Graham Rogers 2011

Thanks to their abundant tunefulness, exuberance and virtuosity, Bach’s concertos for solo keyboard and string orchestra remain widely popular with audiences and performers. Written originally for harpsichord, they are performed today equally often on modern piano.

On this new album, rising-star young French pianist Alexandre Tharaud presents four of Bach’s seven solo keyboard concertos, plus a couple of arrangements. Tharaud has selected the concertos which, in his opinion, are "best suited to the piano". He does not say how he has reached that conclusion, however, and some may disagree with his view. The dark and stormy D minor concerto, for example, is certainly the most substantial, and understandably one he is keen to tackle. But its pungency and dramatic bite are dampened when it is played on a plush grand piano – especially the 1980s Yamaha which Tharaud says he chose for its warmth and mellowness. This is another curious decision: the full-bodied, soft-grained piano sound is often at odds with the impressively crisp and buoyant playing of the strings of Les Violons du Roy. As if to compensate for the piano’s lack of brilliance and immediacy, Tharaud is sometimes rather heavy-handed – he positively thumps out Bach’s heart-stopping cadenza in the first movement of D minor concerto, and over-eggs passages in a breathless account of the sunny D major concerto.

Having said all that, there is plenty to enjoy. Tharaud is dazzlingly nimble-fingered and often admirably sensitive, without romanticising. The sublime Adagio of the F minor concerto is beautifully rendered, delicate and loving but never losing its forward momentum. The stylish orchestral contribution, directed by Bernard Labadie, ensures a welcome lightness of touch. Tharaud’s own arrangement of the concerto for four harpsichords (itself an arrangement by Bach of a Vivaldi concerto for four violins) is cleaner in texture than the original but, in boiling down four solo keyboard parts to one, the work’s almost manic exhilaration is inevitably lost. Tharaud’s gentle, intimate account is, nonetheless, enjoyable on its own terms.

Overall this is an appealing album – very much a pianist’s take on these wonderfully life-affirming concertos, but with much to delight anyone who is already familiar with them (in any form), or for those who are exploring them for the first time.

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