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Liszt: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 26.1.2011 (HS)


Liszt is not the first composer we might associate with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, but then the French pianist has long strived to keep from being pigeonholed as simply a proponent of Debussy and Ravel. Insightful as he is with those composers, he brings formidable technique plus tons of passion and intelligence to others, from Schumann to (memorably) works of the jazz pianist Bill Evans.

In an all-Liszt program at Zellerbach Hall, sartorially resplendent in a Vivienne Westwood jacket embellished with triangular patches of shiny black, the open-collared Thibaudet eschewed the obvious. There was no
B Minor Sonata, no Mephisto waltzes, no Hungarian Rhapsodies, and only one of the many transcriptions of orchestral works. Instead, the distinct impression for me was a focus on Liszt the scene painter.


Nowhere was that more vivid or dramatic than in three pieces that concluded the first half of the recital: “Les Jeaux d’Eau à la Villa d’Este” (“The Play of the Fountains at the Villa d’Este”), from Book III of Années de Pèlerinage, among the composer’s last works, and the Deux Légendes. The latter describes two scenes involving saints in colorful pianistic terms. The technical demands are high in all three works, but the pages blackened with crashing waves of notes are not just for show. They mean something.


And Thibaudet was clearly after the meaning, shaping the structure of piece, using the piano’s capabilities to draw out colors and power, rather than attempting to make the music crystalline. Thibaudet’s technique can handle the rapid passages without as much pedal as he actually used, but the effect was to create great washes of sound in the final pages of the second legend, “Saint-François de Paule Marchant sur les Flots.” The heaving waves were evident in this musical depiction of the saint walking across the water in a Mediterranean storm, but the dignity and gravitas of the hymn embedded within shone through admirably. A piano student might “tsk-tsk” about overuse of the pedal, but Thibaudet knew exactly what he wanted the music to achieve, and he got it. What made the music work, despite the wash created by the pedal, was the sense of inevitability his steady tempo engendered. “Saint-François d’Assisse: La Prédications aux Oiseaux,” the first legend, portrayed the bird calls and the presence of that more famous Saint Francis with delicacy and reverence.


Similar effects to the storm scene occurred later in the program in Liszt’s transcription of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, the love motifs surging through inexorable arpeggios. Thibaudet also used the piano’s quick decay to emphasize decrescendos seamlessly at the surging climax.


The concert began with Pensées Poétiques, six reflective pieces that require that same rock-steady control. The little nod to Chopin that opened the second half, “Meine Freuden, after Chopin’s Moja Pieszczotka,” got things off to a charming start and led without pause into the Ballade No. 2 in B minor. After the “Liebestod,” the program finished with Tarantella, included as a supplement to Book II of Années de Pèlegrinage. That was the closest thing on the program to an out-and-out showpiece, and Thibaudet clearly had fun reining in the tricky rhythms.


For encores, he played “La cloche sonne,” a simple one-page evocation of church bells echoing across a country field—more scene painting. And finally, responding to a rousing ovation from the full house, he sat down at the piano, turned to the audience, said, “Well, maybe one more,” and held the audience spellbound with a ravishing, time-suspending account of Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2.


Harvey Steiman


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