Jean-Philippe Rameau: Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
Allemande – Sarabande – Fanfarinette - Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte
Sergei Rachmaninov: Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90
Although last Friday I took the evening off from concert duties (Sorry, mom!), little did I know that on Saturday morning I would not be as refreshed as I was hoping due to a night plagued by, in no particular order, little critters running around in the attic above me, cats fighting underneath my window, not to mention some mosquitoes in the actual bedroom. So much for the peace and quiet of the countryside.
On the other hand, I figured that if I was not going to get good sleep in Dieulefit, at least I should get good music, and that’s what I did on Saturday night with my mom and our friend Jacqueline at the piano recital al fresco by French "artist on the grass" Alexandre Tharaud, which took place in the local parc de la Baume at 9:30 PM, but who’s counting anymore? At least we had time to have a lovely dinner al fresco too.
The occasion was the 32nd Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, which, according to the program notes, this year offered 12 dates, 15 locations, 19 concerts and 120 artists. Take that, Mostly Mozart Festival, which is not even happening (again). At least this year I am on the right side of the pond.
Although the festival has been including other composers over the years, Mozart still understandably manages to creep into most, if not all, playlists, which is not that difficult considering the incredible range of his œuvre. On Saturday night, as the night was falling, gray clouds were gathering, the opening speeches by local officials were finally over and the last valiant cicada was about to give up, Tharaud started his concert with Mozart’s Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b), a seemingly short and inconspicuous, yet delightfully lively prelude, which the composer used to play to check his piano and warm up his fingers. Before we knew it, it had gone by fleetingly, just like the summer breeze that was keeping us cool.
Remaining roughly in the same time period, we moved on to Rameau, whose works for harpsichord are still as popular with contemporary musicians as they were with Mozart himself. I, however, am not really a big fan of the admittedly estimable French composer, and apparently neither is Mother Nature as it started raining in the middle of the Sarabande, and the performance had to be interrupted not only for the comfort of the musician, but also for the safety of the magnificent Steinway, which got its own cover AND canopy. Talk about special treatment!
The shower dissipated quickly, and Tharaub came back and resumed playing, undisturbed by the fact that the canopy was covering the piano but not him, and gamely delivered a wonderfully heart-felt performance that even increased my appreciation of Rameau, which is no small feat.
Moving boldly from French Late Baroque to Russian Romanticism, we next got to enjoy the five vignettes of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie. Since they first came out, the second one, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, has had its own life as a ubiquitous concert encore and semi-regular presence in movie soundtracks. Unlike the composer and some snooty critics, I am always happy to hear it, with its solemnly resounding bells, rapid-fire middle section, and ever-mysterious finale, all in less than four minutes. Not bad for a 19-year-old barely out of the conservatory! Oh, and yes, the other four pieces are not bad either, as Tharaud convincingly reminded us on Saturday night.
After Rachmaninov’s permanently depressive state, we moved on to Schubert’s intermittently depressive state with his four Impromptus, Op. 90. The Allegro molto moderato felt both warm and chilly, and never completely fulfilled, but then again, such is life. As we were settling into the melodic rêverie of the Allegro, we got jolted back to reality as some raindrops made the music stop again. The upside was that Tharaud eventually took it back up from the top, which means we got to hear the beginning again. The last two impromptus went on without any further external challenges, but plenty of dark overtones, a little desperation, and the occasional flicker of peacefulness.
We had made it to the end almost intact, if a bit damp, and most grateful that the man had not given up on us. As if to celebrate the completion of the program and wrap things up as soon as possible, just in case, Tharaud, who had been chatty in between works, moved right on to a resolutely uplifting, highly virtuosic piece that, in my non-expert opinion, may very well have been by Scarlatti. In any case, it was a fun ending for a memorable Saturday night in the park with Alexandre.