On a sultry summer’s evening, July 20th, on the bucolic grounds of Tanglewood, French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet offered the first in an ambitious triptych of programs showcasing the entire corpus of Joseph-Maurice Ravel’s piano compositions. This recital consisted entirely of solo pieces and took place in the pleasingly overgrown barn that is Seiji Ozawa Hall. Likewise, the following evening’s Program #2 will feature the remainder of Ravel’s solo works performed in the same venue; the two concerti are to be presented with the BSO in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday, July 24.
As most readers are no doubt aware, the allure of Tanglewood extends well beyond the auditory. The warm glow and sweet fragrance of Ozawa Hall’s teak and pine interior (enhanced this evening by more than a whiff of citronella), as well as the idyllic tableau of music patrons lounging and picnicking on the expansive lawn visible from the open rear wall of the hall, conspire to enrich one’s concert experience. The building humidity of the unconditioned air seemingly did nothing to dampen the anticipation of the near-capacity audience.
Thibaudet cut an angular, dashing figure as he strode assuredly across the stage and, with virtually no preamble, gave voice to the waiting Steinway. Now on the cusp of fifty, Thibaudet has been intimately intertwined with the music of Ravel for well over four decades. In fact, in terms of teacher-student lineage, Jean-Yves is a ‘grandson’ of the composer, as his first piano instruction was given by Lucette Descaves, one of Ravel’s students. Mme. Descaves actually presented her gifted young pupil with many scores annotated by the composer himself. Prodigy Thibaudet first performed his fellow Frenchman’s Piano Concerto in G at age eleven and had mastered all of Ravel’s solo piano works by the time he was fifteen.
Given this musical pedigree, it was certainly no surprise that Thibaudet’s recreations were insightful and complex, featuring a kaleidoscopic range of pianistic color. He performed with aplomb and panache, incorporating a deceptively relaxed style in which his fingers scampered gracefully over the keys and a touch that ranged from gossamer to rugged. In addition, his spare use of the damper pedal (as instructed indirectly from Ravel himself via Mme. Descaves) added to the jewel-like, multifaceted clarity. Jean-Yves “tickled the ivories” in the best sense of the phrase.
Ravel’s music is ingeniously crafted, composed with precision and more than a dash of sardonic humor as well as the occasional pinch of irreverence. His solo piano works were written over the span of approximately two decades; this recital included one of the earliest, the impetuous Sérénade grotesque (initial marking: “très rude”), penned when the composer was still in his teens, as well as his last, Le Tombeau de Couperin, completed during the upheaval of World War I. This programmatic juxtaposition underscored just how quickly Ravel’s musical language had matured: by age eighteen his piquant harmonies and syncopated flourishes were already in full flower. Le Tombeau gave an added gravitas to this compositional vocabulary as Ravel crafted a stately and hypnotic six-movement memorial to French Baroque music. In the final Toccata, Thibaudet’s prodigious technique was on full display as highly articulated finger action and feathery touch combined to lend a preternatural lucidity to the hand-blurring sequences.
The evening’s works ranged from the simple and elegant Prélude, written as a sight-reading exercise for Conservatoire students, to the substantive, highly evocative Miroirs (“snoitcelfeR”), whose five movements feature “Noctuelles” (“Night Moths,” with fistfuls of notes as demanding as any étude) “Oiseaux tristes” (“Sad Birds” — which included an accompanying birdsong outside the Ozawa Hall as the plaintive notes died away) and “Une barque sur l’océan” (“A Boat on the Ocean,” with startlingly apropos musical realizations). The penultimate movement, “Alborada del gracioso” (“Morning Song of a Jester”), is particularly challenging, featuring arpeggiated outbursts and glissandos as well as syncopated, puckish rhythms that foreshadow the works of Ginastera. Thibaudet tossed off these riffs with grace and a heightened rhythmic sense no doubt enhanced by his multiple forays into the jazz realm. The final “La vallée des cloches” (“Valley of the Bells”) conjured up impressionistic visions of Monet’s majestic Rouen Cathedral.
It is indeed a rare and revelatory treat to experience a concert in which composer and performer share such a strong, nearly lifelong connection. That Thibaudet has a profound understanding of Ravel’s music is an understatement. Actually, I’d venture that Jean-Yves and Joseph-Maurice would have gotten on famously.
Though the program was of reasonable length (beginning at 8 pm and ending at 9:25 pm, by my watch, including an intermission), the entire recital seemed to pass in a blink. Clamoring for more, our lusty standing-O was rewarded with a single encore. More Ravel, you may guess? No, after brief contemplation, Thibaudet settled on Nocturne in E-flat, Opus 9, No. 2, exquisitely crafted by another transcendent French composer, Frédéric-François Chopin. Très magnifique!