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Polish and Character: Jean-Yves Thibaudet
By Gary Lemco
FRENCH PIANIST Jean-Yves Thibaudet concluded a whirlwind recital at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, Sunday, November 4, 2012 with his second encore, the Earl Wild "virtuoso etude" transcription of Gershwin's "Embraceable You" in its voluptuous glory. Prior, after a full evening of the piano music of Claude Debussy, Thibaudet altered the supercharged atmosphere of the island of Cythera via L'isle joyeuse with the tenderly melancholy Brahms A major Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2.
Perhaps the most renowned of the piano pupils of Aldo Ciccolini, Thibaudet extends that artist's rarified conceptions of the Debussy oeuvre, his approach a combination of sturdy technical prowess and nuanced expressivity coupled with a granite sense of musical architecture. The entire first half of Thibaudet's recital embraced Debussy's Preludes, Book II (1913), which Thibaudet presented as a series of character pieces that traverse imaginative and geographical subjects at once, even touches of Gothic morbidity and the literary world of Charles Dickens' Pickwick. After having taken huge strides to the keyboard, Thibaudet began with the uncanny Brouillards, a superlatively "foggy" piece whose obscure key centers seem to accomplish what Schoenberg wrote whole dissertations about. Equally enigmatic were Thibaudet's Bruyeres, an evocation of plainchant touched by ephemeral harmonic movement. Fireworks, naturally enough, were just those, Bastille Day celebrations raised to the level of a transcendental etude.
Thibaudet evoked splendid colors from his Steinway, by means of glistening runs and slides, feral block chords and octaves, suave crossings of the hands, and canny pedaling. A piece like "Canope" refers to an Etruscan burial urn - Debussy maintained some on his writing desk - that bore a semblance to Osiris, Egyptian god of the dead. Its ceremonial gravity had a special flavor in Thibaudet's conception, perhaps a throwback of the "Sphinxes" of Schumann's Carnaval. Thibaudet certainly exuded eroticism in his playing, in pieces like Les fees sont d'exquises danseuses and Ondine, but also wry humor in a parodic send-up like General Lavine—eccentric, which makes fun of Edward Lavine, who had appeared in Paris in 1910 billed as "The Man Who Has Soldiered All His Life." For the sheer marvel of technical competence of superior ilk, Thibaudet's Les tierces alternees, alternating thirds, took one's breath away as though we had been astounded and vanquished by a Liszt etude. The athletic habanera for La puerta del vino captured the Iberian flavor of Granada, urging us to imagine what Thibaudet might make of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain.
The second half opened with the romantically familiar Suite bergamasque of 1890 (rev. 1905), a milestone that rests squarely on the shoulders of its third movement, Clair de Lune. Thibaudet opened the Prelude rather aggressively, enjoying its inner play of motifs that hint of Rameau and Couperin. The palette acquired finer nuance in the Menuet, easily reminiscent of the clavecinists and their love of passing grace notes and florid ornamentation. At moments the internal three-hand effects bore a likeness to passages in Schumann, whom Debussy admired. The audience naturally remained spellbound for Clair de Lune, then exulted in the ostinato duple filigree of the left hand of the Passepied, whose acerbic brilliance became ever more liquefied and eventually melted into those two last chords, ppp. A succession of black keys opened the ensuing Pagodes of the Estampes suite (1903), in which Thibaudet took us to Debussy's Java, all bells and pentatonic evocations of winds' toying with minarets. The habaneras of Spain consumed us in Thibaudet's La soiree dans Grenade, a night piece whose erotic and occasionally militant sensibility could have been penned to suit the pages of Pierre Louys' Woman and Puppet. The wonderful toccata Jardins sous la pluie kept Thibaudet involved in 16th notes of diaphanous speed and shape, the melodies - two charming children's songs - suddenly enunciated with startling breadth and clarity.
Finally, the "blessed isle" itself in A minor, built on a series of emancipated trills in the manner of Scriabin, a witches' brew of undulating and jabbing figures that accommodates a rondo in 3/8 that might nod to Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60. Certainly, the martial episodes echoed the Fetes of the Trois Nocturnes . The sforzati, the piercing clarity of Thibaudet's sonorous undulations and splashes of color took us by storm, and his final rush of notes added that thespian, dramatic element to raise the audience from its collective seats. ♫
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly reviews for Classical Music
Guide. He resides in California.
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