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
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
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