Review: Thibaudet dazzles ISO audience 

3 stars

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Feb. 25-26

Jean-Yves Thibaudet may, in one way, be a 21st-century Franz Liszt. As many are aware, Liszt (1811-1886) was a larger-than-life figure in the 19th century: as a composer, as the supreme pianist of his time, as a womanizer, as an abbé in later life (probably for his repentance) and as a caring person who helped many of his fellow composers achieve fame (e.g. Wagner, who also married Liszt’s daughter Cosima).

Liszt and Thibaudet’s paths cross only in their respective pianistic excellence. That excellence was well demonstrated at Friday’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert, wherein Thibaudet performed Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat. He directly followed it with the composer’s Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) for Piano and Orchestra, concluding the program with more than a bang. ISO guest conductor Ludovic Morlot (who conducts without a baton) opened with the quite contrasting Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 (“Pastorale”).

Beethoven’s work — unique in the symphonic pantheon (it has five movements, it’s cheerfully “rustic” and it is a program symphony bearing the stamp of its composer’s unfailing greatness in the genre) — received a fast-paced reading from Morlot, excepting for its third movement: “Merry assembly of country folk,” a.k.a. the Scherzo. Here our conductor tended to drag the “country folk’s merriment” such that even its expected acceleration just before the ensuing “Thunderstorm” movement did not move the folk fast enough to get in out of the weather.

The remaining movements, aside from being more convincingly paced, nonetheless displayed a few rough spots. For a work this well known and so often recorded, Morlot failed to show the orchestra at its best.

The second half gave us all the evening’s fireworks, courtesy of Thibaudet. With his E-flat Concerto, Liszt provided an equal measure of display and well structured themes — the thematic material, the short four-movements and the pianistic perorations melding into a highly inspired creation — one of Liszt’s finest.

Thibaudet attacked his opening passages like a bolt of lightning, showing astonishing finger work in his cascading octaves, his passage figurations, his two-hand trills—all tossed off with seemingly little effort. And he maintained this prodigious technique, including a number of tender moments, throughout the concerto.

But Thibaudet succumbed to a virtuoso’s biggest temptation: taking some passages at a runaway tempo — simply because he can. When jumping ahead of the orchestra, the pianist rushes through moments which should be musically savored and not buried in an avalanche of notes. A thoroughly exciting performance, yes, but we missed some of the music Liszt had offered us.

By contrast, Liszt fails to offer anything much beyond mere technical display in his Totentanz. A set of variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the 12th century, this work raises the bar for being show-offy — a frequent failing of Liszt’s piano music. It let Thibaudet—without much real music to work with—unleash his fingers into a kaleidoscope of technical devices reaching both the limit of a piano’s capability and a human’s ability to bring it off.

Though I’ve never heard a Totentanz played with this much self-assurance, the musical emptiness of the writing weighs on my appreciation of what his fingers can do. His solo encore, Chopin’s poetic Nocturne in E-flat, allowed, once again, the enjoyment of Thibaudet’s musicianship.

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Tom Aldridge

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