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Oiseaux tristes et exotiques

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/07/2001 -  
Claude Debussy: Preludes, Book II
Maurice Ravel: Miroirs
Olivier Messiaen: from Vingt Regards

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

I always find it informative to read the program at Carnegie Hall because it lists when and by whom each individual piece for the evening was first performed there. As the most prestigious of all American concert venues, the auditorium is a fairly good barometer of the performance history of a composer, movement or style. Particularly for twentieth century music, these tidbits illuminate the relative acceptability and popularity of the works in question. I was struck by the entries in the notes for last night’s recital by the expressive French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and lulled into une reve about the recent pianistic past.

The second book of Preludes of Debussy was premiered at Carnegie in 1945 by Robert Casadesus. Thibaudet has a lot in common with this past master, his touch similarly light and aristocratic. One would guess that this recitalist would be a formidable exponent of the Mozart concerti, for he possesses a digital prowess that concentrates on not lingering upon the notes, rather suggesting the total sonority and leaving its impression fleetingly but hauntingly in the mind’s ear. Last night’s entry in the unceasing competition which, for better or worse, is the inexorable parade of piano recitals over time was particularly adept at the humor of these pieces and precise in his ability to make what could in lesser hands be just a mush of overtones sound very clear (he accomplished this partially by a laudably restrained use of the pedal).

The piano music of Ravel, which, it should be remembered, predates that of Debussy had to wait an even longer time for its Carnegie premiere. Miroirs was introduced there in 1955 (a full fifty years after its composition) by the amazing Walter Gieseking, the only man in music history to play the piano as if it had no hammers. Monsieur Thibaudet acquitted himself very well against this historical example, producing a set of remarkable power and delicacy. His boat certainly rocked comfortingly upon the sea and his bells intoned majestically in their valley. Only his Alborado seemed a little less than rhythmically crisp.

But the prize for the most surprising Carnegie premiere went to Olivier Messiaen, whose Vingt Regards has never been performed in this hallowed hall. Our delight in hearing even one of these pieces (the vingtieme itself) was enhanced by the historical nature of the performance but even more intensified by the thrilling rendition that this great music certainly deserves. Here the pianist reminded of Thibaudet and, in the case of this magnificent pantheistic landscape painting, this is high praise indeed. Perhaps a concert manager will schedule his burning talent in a reading of the entire work at Carnegie sometime in future (or perhaps the honor of the premiere could go to the impressive Pierre-Laurent Aimard), but certainly someone should present the whole of this spectacular piece to an intelligent and willing public. Jean-Yves attacked this fragment with glee and relish, presenting its religiosity in the proper celebratory manner and carrying us all along on a wave of febrile fervor. The connection to the Ravel Vallee des cloches was strong in the persistent bell motif, which Thibaudet emphasized with just the right sense of psychotic obsession. A tremendously exciting end to a satisfying program.

There were at least two other pianistic ghosts haunting the hall last evening. Perhaps not in the Debussy, but certainly in the Ravel and Messiaen, the spirit of Franz Liszt was strong. Our soloist chose the great man’s piano transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod as his first encore. In doing so, he reminded me of my own quixotic hero, Glenn Gould, whose powerful outpouring of emotion has forever put his stamp upon this music. Thibaudet did not seem to have his armamentarium well stocked for this piece, however, and, compared to Gould’s cannon of a right hand tremolo, could only offer a popgun.

The great ones know when to quit while the merely good do not. Like virtually every other annoying European recitalist, this fellow had the Gaul to feel the need to throw his American audience a domestic bone. Usually, these pieces are the lighter works of Gershwin, Copland or Joplin, but last evening we were feted with a piece of forgettable flapper music. This was followed by a surprisingly pedestrian reading of Chopin, which definitely did not put me in mind of Artur Rubinstein. Coming out yet again, the artist launched into a work which belonged more properly to a hotel dining room.

At this point, I made my way to the exit. I was afraid that the next piece might have been composed by Yanni.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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