Thibaudet does Ravel and Brahms

By R.M. Campbell

The last time Jean-Yves Thibaudet played in Seattle was as soprano Renee Fleming’s pianist. He was a genuine partner to her and she, in addition, gave him some solo time. a rare gesture from a singer. Still, he was second banana. On Sunday afternoon, also at Benaroya Hall, part of the Seattle Symphony’s Distinguished Artists Series, he was first banana and what a banana.

It is something of a commonplace to say the French pianist is a musician of great accomplishment. But after Sunday’s performance, it seems like an understatement. He has always been a pianist of elegance and authority and subtlety. More so on Sunday, with technical brilliance and probing musicianship.

The program was simple enough. First half was devoted to Ravel — “Pavane pour une infante defunte” and “MIroirs” — and second half — Brahms’ F Minor Sonata. The “Pavane” is played so often, it is hard to give it fresh life. Thibaudet did with carefully gauged dynamics and plenty of colors. The melancholy of the lament was palpable but Thibaudet did not milk the sentiment or make it maudlin. The grief may have been restrained but it was real and beautifully realized. Composed in 1904-05, “Miroirs” is a virtuoso statement, demanding the full scope of any pianist’s technical resources. Nothing seemed to pose a problem for Thibaudet. He sailed through “sweeping arpeggios” of “Une Bartque sur l’ocean” and the repeated notes, to be played very fast, and double glissandos of “Alborado del gracioso” with confidence. In fact, the technical display was awesome in its scale. However, that was only the beginning. Thibaudet went well beyond the notes into the music itself — its evanescent qualities, elusiveness, spitfire rhythms and long romantic ardor. Always, Thibaudet kept the momentum of the work going forward with panache and vigor and style. The lyricism was cool but convincing. Everything was a miracle of transparency. I am not sure if I have ever heard a better performance live.

Brahms wrote a trio of sonatas, all written early in his creative life. None figures large in his vast canon of piano music. The F Minor Sonata may be the exception, especially with Thibaudet’s reading. With him the piece was organic, yet the drama was drama writ large. Whatever the deficiencies of the score, he paid little notice. He gave the work a granite kind of base that allowed him flights of fancy up and down the keyboard. There was much that was extroverted about the performance balanced with moments that were introverted. The duality gave the reading an added sense of adventure. Thibaudet believes in this work. Indeed, he played it as if his life depended on it.

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