A little over two weeks ago, Warner Classics released its latest album featuring the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. Tharaud is nothing if not prolific in his approach to repertoire. Where my own listening experiences have been concerned, he has made his deepest impressions in his approaches to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme and an album of eighteen keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. In that context Tharaud’s new album is definitely “something completely different;” but some of those differences turn out to arise in unexpected ways.
This album consists entirely of music by Sergei Rachmaninoff. That means that we have yet another recording of the Opus 18 (second) concerto in C minor, which Tharaud plays with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Vedernikov, whom Tharaud describes as “perhaps one of today’s greatest Rachmaninov specialists.” However, his respect for his conductor turns out to establish the entirety of this album as a “Tharaud and friends” package. The three tracks for the concerto are followed by the five Opus 3 “fantasy” pieces, after which he accompanies soprano Sabine Devieilhe in a performance of the “Vocalise” that (for a change) actually involves vocalization. (To be fair, this really is the way Rachmaninoff wrote it, since it is the last song in his Opus 34 collection.) The album then concludes with two unpublished pieces (“Romance” and “Valse,” both in A major) for six hands on two pianos with the remaining four hands provided by Alexander Melnikov and Aleksandar Madžar.
Like many of my contemporaries, my attitude towards Rachmaninoff was, for the better part of my life, snobbishly dismissive. The fact is that it was only when I had to focus on writing about both his music and how it was performed that I took a turn in a more positive direction. Nevertheless, I should say in all fairness that my satisfaction with Rachmaninoff performances still tends to outweigh my feelings about recordings. The fact is that Rachmaninoff could command a impressive rhetorical toolbox of nuances and subtleties; but the intricacies of such tool-work tend, more often than not, to get pushed into an almost inaudible background in the making of recordings intended to appeal to listeners only interested in the grandest of gestures. Once the repertoire departs from chamber music and songs, it is difficult to find recording projects interested in anything other than a “wow-factor.”
As a result the significant virtues of this new album only arise once one has progressed beyond those opening three tracks of Opus 18. First we have Tharaud’s solo performance of the five Opus 3 compositions that Rachmaninoff called “fantasy” pieces. Most likely the vast majority of listeners do not know that this is the publication in which the famous (“infamous,” if you prefer) C-sharp minor prelude appears. While I am not sure whether or not listening to this prelude in its “publication context” makes a great different, it is worth noting that there is considerable diversity in both structure and rhetoric across all five of these pieces. Given that Opus 3 is so seldom performed (and, for that matter, recorded) in its entirety, Tharaud’s recording makes a clear and motivated case that such listening is not only appropriate but also highly desirable.
One may then turn to the remaining tracks on the album as “encore” selections. From this point of view, it makes perfect sense to begin with the “Vocalise,” even if it has been extracted from its own publication context. Devieilhe is perfectly comfortable with the absence of text and has no trouble presenting the piece as a chamber music duo for piano and a decidedly different “instrument.” The six-hand pieces, on the other hand, have the potential to provide a journey of discovery. They were composed in 1891, a decade before Opus 18. Of the two Tharaud decided to play the “Romance” first, since it has the same passage that would later open the second movement of that concerto; and, indeed, the tempo marking in the concerto is the same as it is in the six-hand piece: Andante sostenuto. Thus, even though the six-hand piece takes that opening gesture in an entirely different direction, the composition offers a bit of insight with regard to where and how Rachmaninoff could identify and develop his ideas. The “Valse,” on the other hand, amounts to a pleasant (and strikingly brief) diversion, making it a highly suitable selection for the album’s final track. However, it is through the presence of the “Romance” that one can appreciate that even Opus 18 opens up previously overlooked approaches to thinking about it.