French concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud (b. 1968) is one of a growing number of fine, younger pianists who have developed almost fanatical followings in the past decade or two. The several dozen albums Tharaud has produced bear testament to his popularity, and the present one in which he plays the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto should do nothing to dispel his acclaim.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, premiered by Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) in 1901, is one of the last of the great Romantic concertos. Well, OK, not really the last; that would probably be the composer's Third Piano Concerto. But the Second, with its grand, rhapsodic gestures epitomizes the Romantic tradition, so, close enough.
The history of the concerto is well known. Rachmaninov wrote it after recovering from a fit of depression brought on by the relative failure of his First Symphony and some severe complications in his personal life. As the story goes, it was only through hypnotherapy that he reestablished and revived his career. The Concerto would appear the perfect vehicle for the creative and energetic Tharaud.
Can one play the Second Concerto too Romantically? Tharaud seems to try, although I don't mean this as a bad thing. He plays with an assured calm and a sweet lyrical flourish. There is little overstatement in the performance, except perhaps to keep the music as smoothly polished as possible. Furthermore, Tharaud plays with a confident dexterity, and the Liverpool players give him a solid backup, without overwhelming him in the bigger sections of the score.
Tharaud's interpretation of the central Adagio glides along as tranquilly as we might expect from hearing a similar treatment of the first movement, with no inordinate surprises. It's quite lovely, in fact, even if it seems a little too leisurely and measured at times. Then, in the final movement we get a healthy but again not overheated influx of adrenaline. Indeed, the listener may find this either refreshing or too tame, take your choice.
The remainder of the program consists of a series of shorter Rachmaninov pieces: Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie for solo piano; Vocalise for piano and voice (with soprano Sabine Devieilhe); and Pieces for six hands (with pianists Alexander Melnikov and Aleksandar Madzar). Given that all three of the album's pianists plus the conductor are Alexanders (of various spellings), one wonders if Tharaud or his producer chose them to perform as some kind of in-joke. Or was it really coincidence? In any case, I enjoyed these smaller pieces, Tharaud displaying all the sensitivity he showed in the concerto but on a more-intimate and, perhaps, more-appropriate scale. (Well, OK, maybe he needs to be more theatrically menacing in the Prelude in C sharp minor if he's going to hope to compete with the best.)
Producer, editor, and mixer Cecile Lenoir and engineer Philip Siney recorded the concerto at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, UK in 2016 and the chamber music at Salle Colonne, Paris, in the same year.
In the concerto, the piano is well out in front of orchestra. Fortunately, it sounds smoothly recorded, if a trifle soft, and the orchestra likewise, making the entire enterprise quite easy on the ears. So, while the piano appears most natural, the orchestral transparency could have been a bit more pronounced. In the smaller pieces at the end, the piano seems even more lifelike, with a tad more definition. And without a full orchestra behind it, the piano seems more realistically alive.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: