Music Review: JEAN-YVES THIBAUDET, Piano (Debussy’s Preludes at Walt Disney Concert Hall)

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by Lyle Zimskind on December 5, 2021

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


In a recent interview Jean-Yves Thibaudet described his decision to “stick with” the piano over the violin after years spent learning both as a child. On the keys, he realized, “You feel like king of the world. You can create every color, every dynamic.” And last week, on a foggy night in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, Thibaudet’s sparkling performance of the Debussy Preludes (parts I and II) gave him a chance to put the full range of his chosen instrument’s tonal capacities on display for a rapt Disney Hall audience.

Claude Debussy’s two “books” of Preludes both include 12 thematically unrelated musical tableaus, with fanciful titles evoking scenes and stories in a panoply of moods. Written in Paris between 1909 and 1913, the work is typically associated with the “Impressionist” movement, each brief piece establishing a distinctive atmospheric image. Many of these are loosely based on specific literary references (“Homage to Pickwick”), geographical places (“The Hills of Anacapri”), or outdoor observations (“Footprints in the Snow”) and events (“Fireworks”). Some are more technically descriptive (“Alternating Thirds”) or otherwise less programmatic (“Interrupted Serenade”). Their various sonic effects are comparably eclectic.

Thibaudet recorded the Preludes for Decca in 1995, and they’ve remained a staple of his repertoire over the intervening quarter century. (He featured them on his European concert tour as recently as earlier this year.) Even more than on that recording (which is already a pretty good version of the Preludes), in performance Wednesday night the array of aural pictures that Thibaudet developed on his piano brought vivid life and striking definition to Debussy’s musical vignettes. Once or twice, including at the end of the hyper-virtuosic “What the West Wind Saw” in the middle of the first set, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

At another high point in the first half of the program, Thibaudet generated a positively orchestral richness from the multitude of voices in Debussy’s colossal “Submerged Cathedral,” based on the regional French legend of a church rising out of and then returning back to into the sea. The harmonies of a church organ and tower bells, tinged with the echo of an Indonesian gamelan gong, allowed an entire universe of sonorities to emerge from Thibaudet’s keyboard. The evocation of Shakespeare’s playful scamp in “Puck’s Dance” immediately afterward was practically a relief.

The second volume of Preludes, after intermission, showed off still more of Thibaudet’s palette in a flow of surprising portraits and landscapes. Tension between the left and right hands resolved into a conciliatory habanera in “La Puerta Del Vino.” A clown character, the “Eccentric General Lavine,” was animated with jazzy inflections. Both the British and French national anthems made brief appearances. Fairies danced; alternating thirds cascaded. And “Fireworks” exploded in a dazzling display of keyboard pyrotechnics to end it all.

With the audience still on its feet after a couple curtain calls, the pianist returned to the bench with microphone in hand to speak for a minute, noting the difficulty of picking an encore piece suitable to follow the experience of Debussy’s remarkable array of worlds in miniature. And after the kind of bravura performance Thibaudet had just treated us to, we half-expected him to rip into a Jerry Lee Lewis riff and dance on the keyboard to send us off into the night. What he gave us instead, though, were the familiar strains of Elgar’s rhapsodic Salut d’Amour. A balm, to be sure, but nothing to diminish the sensation of our evening’s encounter.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Debussy Preludes (Books I and II)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
December 1, 2021

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