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Light Surplants Shadow at Thibaudet Recital

Jean-Yves ThibaudetJean-Yves Thibaudet’s piano recital at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was oddly separated into two parts of vastly different quality. There was Chopin – and then there was everything else. But unlike one might expect from “the finest exponent of French pianism since the heydays of Aldo Ciccolini and Jean-Marie Darré” (LA Times), it was the Chopin that was infuriatingly mediocre and the rest – Liszt, Satie, Debussy, and Messiaen – that gave the greatest enjoyment.

The opening segment was an uninspired noodle-doodle run-through of Chopin’s ‘greatest hits’, two Nocturnes (op.9, nos. 1 and 2) that didn’t ebb and flow but were rather stop’n’go like a car stalling, than lurching forward again. It came in a languid, un-probing, gentle package with one, very narrow, dynamic band. Instead of a steady, powerfully moving rubato there were only nervous twitches; straggling notes that sounded like trying to catch up with the ones that had gotten away. French and sensitive, an unarguably excellent pianist – perhaps that is good enough a precondition to present Chopin in such a way and get away with it. Everything was either faultless in the same predictable ways (and nothing else) or displayed this utterly erratic rubato. Étude op.25, no.1 was pleasant enough, though, Étude op.25, no.3 muddy but sprightly. The Grande Valse Brilliante in A-Minor, op.34, no.2 was ‘just played’. There may be much thought behind Thibaudet’s notes, phrasing, tempi etc. in this work, but you couldn’t have told from the performance. It sounded, for better or worse, as if an immensely prodigious student sight-read the music with tremendous, but ‘standard-issue’ feeling. Alas, the final Chopin, the actually brilliant Grande Valse Brilliante in E-flat Major op.18, was a different story and hinted at better things to come. Showy, flashy, immensely appealing, even if the attacks were clanky here or there.

If this did not bode well for the offerings to come, Thibaudet now started on a path from redemption to apotheosis. It began with Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante , an exciting “fantasia quasi sonata” that stands very well on its own (as opposed to being the conclusion of the second book of Anées de pèlerinage) and is then often referred to as the “Dante Sonata”… more because of its title and substantial nature than its form. Admittedly less often heard in concert and more difficult to compare than the Chopin, none of what made the latter less than ideal to these ears intruded into this genuine Liszt performance. Pomposity, grandeur, élan, also rigor: Everything that makes for good Liszt was present. A few painfully missed and wrong notes in the helter-skelter finale were gladly forgiven. Thibaudet risked something here – which is infinitely better than timidity in performance and brings ample rewards in its own right.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Thibaudet In His Native Musical Language (Washington Post, February 19)

Charles T. Downey, Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the Kennedy Center (DCist, February 21)
The second half started with a Thibaudet speciality: Satie. (Some pianists might consider it a put-down to be known for ‘good Satie’, but if you do it as well – and successfully – as Thibaudet, that could hardly be the case.) Gymnopédie no.1 was first. It’s a delight full of (usually gay) little birds on a rainy day on the beach, kicking and skipping stones – forlorn in melancholic thoughts. One long cinematic sigh. These same birds are up to no good and more turbulent stuff in Gnossienne no.7. Although tainted with melancholy as well, they are now showing a mischievous, if not malevolent, bent. Still kicking those stones, thoughtlessly, but now in the direction of your dog or window panes. That Dreamy Fish is as Zappaesque as its title suggests. And instead of aquatic somnambulism you get a fishy polka interspersed with absentminded rambling. Smile-inducingingly played.

If there are elevators in heaven, Debussy’s 11th Étude would play in them. Sweetly and innocuously played, it swirled deliciously toward the subconscious of the ears (except for a few exclamation marks). Étude no.7 was appropriately light and bubbled away in a showcase of Thibaudet’s fleet fingers; no.5 was jaunty, athletic, impressive.

Nothing was as pleasing and powerful as Olivier Messiaen’s XX. Regard de l’Église d’amour (from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus). Hymnic, free-flowing, unbound: this is music that might be difficult on the ears for some (dissonance, compared to ‘traditional’ works abounds – but nothing that should much offend after having heard Debussy); it is music that needs space to unfold to impress those uninitiated ears. It is music that, outside of Bach, is one of the best ways ever devised to sing the praises of Jesus. Simply divine, to pun badly… but in all seriousness this was the recital’s apotheosis. Emphasizing the boldness and the vigor, Thibaudet’s was an exciting rendition that more than made up for the Chopin. No doubt there were many audience members who felt exactly the opposite way, but the enthusiastic applause (eliciting two encores: Debussy’s L'isle joyeuse and the rare Shura Cherkassky 1925 Prelude Pathetique) suggested that that last of the Vingt Regards was not lost on many.