Thibaudet revels in Ravel at Tanglewood

In a departure from recent tradition, the French piano virtuoso Jean-Yves Thibaudet won’t be making an appearance this summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. But his local fans will have ample opportunity to catch him at Tanglewood. He’ll be appearing three times in the coming week performing the music of his countryman, Maurice Ravel.

Thibaudet will perform all of Ravel’s solo piano works over two nights, Wednesday and Thursday (7/20-21), at Ozawa Hall. Then on Sunday, July 24, he’ll appear in with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at The Koussevitzky Music Shed in both of Ravel’s two piano concertos.

The immersion in Ravel apparently comes easily.

“There are very few composers where I’d do the complete works, because it’s not all at the same level of quality,” explains Thibaudet. “Most composers have great works and some not-so-wonderful. With Ravel, every single note he wrote is perfect.”

Thibaudet has recorded the complete piano works of only three composers — Ravel, Debussy and Satie — and he swears it’s not because they’re all French. Negotiations with his longtime record label Decca played a part. But he holds special reverence for Ravel.

“Everything he wrote is beautiful,” he continues. “To add a note would get in the way, and to drop a note would detract. It’s just a miracle.”

Thibaudet might be considered an heir to Ravel and his tradition.

“My first teacher at the Paris Conservatory, Lucette Descaves, was a friend and collaborator of Ravel. She played for and with him. They were very close,” recalls Thibaudet. “When I’d play something of his, she would speak about him and it was like he was present, like he’d just dropped by the lecture.”

Although Ravel was a famously elusive person, with few intimate friends during his life, Thibaudet says he feels a kinship.

“I feel like I met the guy. It’s really weird that I feel really close,” says Thibaudet. “He was very shy and not very social and had trouble communicating with other people. Perhaps it was some kind of disorder in his brain, but his only way to express himself was through his music.”

Just as Ravel’s piano music comes from every chapter of his life, the material has also been a touchstone throughout the career of Thibaudet, 50. He learned all the solo piano works by age 15 and refers to “Ondine” as one of his “lucky pieces,” having performed it regularly in competition. As for the Piano Concerto in G Major, he learned that at the tender age of 11. It was his first piece to play with an orchestra.

“My teacher raised hell, saying that’s not right for a child, you should do Mozart or Mendelssohn,” he recalls. “But I insisted, and she said ‘OK, if you learn the first movement by next week.’ I did it and she gave up.”

It was last summer that Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator for the Boston Symphony, suggested two evenings of Ravel. Thibaudet readily agreed. But then Fogg went further, asking for the two concertos as well. That much Ravel, all in a few days, will be a new benchmark for Thibaudet.

“This is something I’ve never done in my life. I’ve played both concertos on rare occasions, and the solo works, but never all of it in one week,” he says.

Although it’s a challenge, the setting helped convince Thibaudet to give it a go.

“I love the possibilities of Ozawa. You’re in a concert hall, but feel open to nature and the beautiful grounds of Tanglewood,” he says. “And Ravel was very much in love with nature. Madame Descaves told me that. He was born in this little village in the south of France, on the west side, almost in Spain. You can still see the house where he lived and the little garden. He was not a tall man and he loved everything that was tiny. He lived in his own world and took care of every little plant.”

That attention to detail carries over into the music and to how Thibaudet plays it.

“People always have an idea of impressionism — the term is silly — and that it should be washed out with a lot of pedal,” continues Thibaudet. “He was a classical composer and wanted to hear every note, like a pearl.”

All Ravel (part two)
Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Julye 21

Things have been changing for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who is closing in on a 50th birthday in September.  His concert attire is no longer so brash and colorful, though his suits and tuxedos still have a not so subtle flair (thanks to his exclusive designer Vivien Westwood).  And the contraction of the record industry means he’s no longer cranking out two or three discs a year.  Yet with some 40 titles already released, including forays into jazz, soundtracks and opera transcriptions in addition to lots of mainstream recitals and concertos, he’s already amassed an impressive legacy.

Hopefully Thibaudet’s sundry enthusiasms will continue, but there’s no reason to complain that for three appearances this week at Tanglewood he’s settled in for some very comfortable and familiar material.  In two programs at Ozawa Hall, he’s offered the complete solo piano music of Ravel.  He turns to the Shed on Sunday afternoon to perform both Ravel concertos.  After hearing Thursday’s performance, the second of the two recitals, words like perfect and definitive and unforgettable don’t seem like overstatements

Elegant and refined are other descriptives and they apply equally to the music and the performances.  Yet within the contained, rather intimate sound world, there was an expansive variety as well.

Thibaudet opened the program with the relative simplicity of “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”  Each small rubato and gently rolled chord was revelatory.  Despite its crashing waves and crossed currents, “Jeaux d’eau” was crystalline and transparent.

The first half ended with the brash pleasure and blunt humor of “Valses nobles et sentimentales.” Toward the end, one finally sensed the weight of Thibaudet’s touch and therefore too the humanity behind such endless style.

Thibaudet took hardly a breath between each of the eight waltzes.  After intermission his first notes in the Sonatine brought us right back to the same precious place.  The writing is more formal, less depictive, and somehow that allowed for pianist’s own emotions to come through a bit.  A long series of cadences were like gentle sighs.

“Gespard de la nuit,” the finale, brought us back to the high seas with the “Ondine” movement. The repeated B-flats in “Le Gibet” gave a welcome mooring to the piece.  “Scarbo” went by at an ever quickening pace and was by turns militant, jazzy and expressionistic.

There was no more Ravel left for an encore, so Thibaudet turned to Spanish composer Federico Mompou. The brief, languid piece felt like summer siesta.

Originally appeared in the Times Union.

Photos courtesy Decca Records. Copyright James Cheadle

Previously on MyBigGayEars:

Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays Gershwin

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, style at the keyboard


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