Review: Thibaudet dazzles ISO audience

Jean-Yves Thibaudet impressed audiences with two Liszt performances, but they lacked much beyond technical display.

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


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



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