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Ravel, Séverac, Debussy: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Wigmore Hall, 21.9.2009 (MBr)

It has often been said that only French orchestras can truly get to the heart of French music; the same can be said of French musicians playing French chamber music. One of the hallmarks of this recital wasn’t just the intellectual understatement which Tiberghien brought to these scores, it was the impression that he was magnifying each note to ensure that it became picture perfect as a complete work. Put simply, it is the subtle – but important – difference between linguistic empathy and translation.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is based on three of Aloysius Bertrand’s gothic poems, the words of which are often dark and hallucinatory. It is this which Ravel mimics in his writing, and it was this which Tiberghien created as the benchmark for this revelatory performance. Ondine, for example, focuses on a lustful mermaid, shrouded as a sorceress. But far from making us repel her advances, Tiberghien gave the illusion of drawing us into her dark world. The sense of being lured in was inescapable; as her words resonate with ever-increasing sensuality and strength, so too did Tiberghien’s playing: from the ppp opening to the introduction of the dark, low-register melody as Ondine proclaims her love, to the crushing climax of water crashing down, with pounding keyboard drills, Tiberghien made the movement more impressionistically unsettling than I can remember.

Le Gibet is a remorseless picture of desolation and misery, an eerie presence of a hanging man at the gallows. Sustained over a tolling B-flat, Tiberghien made what is the starkest of these musical poems very three-dimensional. It is sometimes easy to overplay the monotony of the piece, but Tiberghien made the repetition highly atmospheric. In part, this was because he made very distinct efforts to differentiate between pp and ppp but more than that he struck a balance between the melody of the movement and its darker undertones. Octaves, sometimes played with one hand, at others with both, sounded independent of each other whilst maintaining the sense that they did have the same melodic line. This was the all more stunning when set against the tempest of Scarbo, the final poem. Out of the nightmares, we are now in a world of a frenetic whirlwind. Technically, Tiberghien has mastered the piece’s technical challenges; musically, he brings to it a surreal, almost hallucinogenic quality where broken pedalled octaves merge almost effortlessly with jagged chord like passages that add mystery to the madness.

It is not so much the virtuosity of these pieces that causes pianists difficulty (though the pianistic demands are in the extreme); it is more the atmospheric and poetical demands that Ravel places on his interpreters. What Tiberghien achieved in these musical poems was staggering: for example, quite how he was able to traverse the keyboard in Ondine, with its rhythmic chords depicting falling water, and maintain both the constant flow of Ravel’s tempo and play the music so quietly was both magical and mysterious. In Le Gibet he gave the illusion of time literally standing still, the final B-flat resonating only in a black hole of darkness. In Scarbo, transcendental virtuosity was at the service of the music’s deeper meaning: so often this music calls for a sense of ‘trembling’ or nervousness; Tiberghien gave us that – even at the exceptionally fast tempo Ravel demands.

Placing Gaspard first in this recital (although chronologically it wasn’t the first piece written) caused something of a problem for the rest of the programme. de Séverac’s Les Muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia was a restrained choice after the Ravel. Although at times it seemed a potpourri of Ravel, Debussy and Albeniz – particularly the latter – Tiberghien tempered the work’s Spanish exuberance with a Ravelian gloominess. He certainly brought colour to the piece, using a wide keyboard palate, as he had for Gaspard. If, in the last resort, this seemed like the ham between a sandwich it proved a decent enough counter-balance to the recital’s closing works, Debussy’s Masques, D’un cahier d’esquisses and L’isle joyeusse. Delivered with verve, panache, brilliance and a heady virtuosity, instrumental colour once again returned to the keyboard through Tiberghien’s always-refined mastery of the understated.

Marc Bridle 

This recital will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 26th September at 2pm.

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