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May 11, 2015

CSO fest is the crème de la crème

In some ways, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has been preparing for this month’s French festival all year. There was music by Maurice Ravel played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Hélène Grimaud in February, morsels by Vincent d’Indy and César Franck (plus more Ravel) under Charles Dutoit in March, and tastes of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francis Poulenc with Harry Bicket little more than a week ago—and that’s just naming the concerts reviewed in this newspaper.

But all have been merely hors d’oeuvres. At last, the CSO’s Reveries & Passions Festival is officially here, and it’s here with a vengeance—and by “vengeance,” I mean a generous helping of Gallic music.

Sunday afternoon’s piano recital was no different, as Paris-born pianist Alexandre Tharaud left concert-goers with more than just a memorable performance: He left them totally spellbound.

The first half of the concert featured pieces by eighteenth-century composers François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau that had originally been written for harpsichord. Their translation to the piano (which has more resonance and can sustain notes longer than its predecessor) yielded surprising insights, namely that even French Baroque music can sound rather impressionistic—a harbinger of the dominant style to emerge in the same region two centuries later.

As for the svelte, smartly-dressed Tharaud, his wellsprings of musicality were apparent the moment he laid his fingers on the keyboard. From the very first chord of Couperin’s “La logivière,” Orchestra Hall—all 2,522 seats of it—seemed to contract. Each of the seven selections to follow had a distinct personality, but Tharaud’s exceptional voicing and sensitive phrasing were constant throughout the entire performance. (A breathtaking bonus was the piano itself, a wonderfully receptive Steinway concert grand endowed with a pure, glassy sound.)

Next were selections from Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, including the same “Gavotte et Doubles” movement played by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani as an encore during the CSO’s recent Baroque program. Again, the suite took on a completely different flavor when played on the piano; instead of deferring to Baroque performance restrictions and playing the selections as though on a harpsichord, Tharaud milked the piano for all it was worth, just as he had the Couperin selections.

Tharaud’s elucidating interpretations of French Baroque music have led some to dub him “the French Glenn Gould,” after the Canadian pianist who was famous for his renditions of the keyboard classics of Bach—another Baroque master—and infamous for his eccentricities behind the keyboard. But Tharaud is no eccentric. Sure, he has his quirks—he’s told interviewers that he often argues with the piano during recording sessions and refuses to keep a piano at home for fear that his practice sessions would become unfocused—but he’d sooner idolize an eccentric than be one. Case in point: Tharaud has had a long-standing fascination with Erik Satie, the ever-popular, ever-iconoclastic composer who wore velvet suits so often that he became known in Paris as “the Velvet Gentleman.”

Satie’s music is as singular as his personality: He was a Dr. Seuss of sounds, a producer of short solo piano works of charming unpretentiousness and wry genius. One needs to look no further than his cleverly-named Avant-dernières pensées (Next-to-Last Thoughts) as proof: Each of the three pieces—none of which exceeds a minute—is built upon a repeating ostinato (or short, continuous figure) in one hand and a straightforward, meandering melody in the other. It’s a basic formula, to be sure, but such is the elegant simplicity of Satie.

The Pensées are full of touches that are quintessentially Satie. For example, the sheet music lacks bar lines, making it seem as though the music flows practically unstoppered until the final chord, and the score is full of waggish little asides. (Tempo marking: “Moderately, I beg you.” On the left-hand ostinato in the Idyll: “Basso legato, don’t you think?”)

Tharaud performed Satie’s works with attentive clarity, pausing appropriately between each episode and segueing directly from the Pensées into the three Gnoissiennes. Tharaud’s obvious admiration for the composer was apparent in more than just his playing: As something of a homage, he donned a black velvet blazer for the program.

Rounding off the concert was Ravel’s evocative but teeth-gnashingly tricky Miroirs, but to the surprise of no one in attendance, Tharaud executed the piece masterfully and without any visible signs of strain. The sound he was able to coax from the piano was so nuanced, so utterly vocal that it seemed as though he and the piano were one. From the distant, melancholic calls of the second-movement, Oiseaux tristes, to the frothy swells of Une barque sur l’océan, to the driven Iberian rhythms of Alborada del gracioso, Monsieur Tharaud brought it all to life.

In other words, Sunday’s recital confirmed what patrons already knew: The CSO’s French Festival is cause for celebration. And at only a week in, it’s clearly off to quite the start.

The Reveries & Passions Festival continues with a variety of French-themed programs from now through May 24. Check student pricing availability online at cso.org.

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