Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano: The Chopin I Love

Thibaudet Chopin

Ahhhhh, the Chopin I love. Makes me think of one of those treacly classical CD covers picturing an oceanside cliff face staring into the sunset (don't forget to imagine wind whooshing sounds). Strange that all London Decca could come up with is  a gaunt Frenchman sitting on a park bench and staring at the camera with a self-satisfied grin. Pity. Luckily, though, Mr. Thibaudet is much more pleasant to listen to than look at. On the whole, his is a virile, extroverted Chopin. Which quite surprised me coming from a guy who's been known to wear lipstick, bleach his hair, and bedeck himself in Liberace-esque attire.

Thibaudet seems to particularly feel at home in Chopin's larger forms—the A-flat polonaise (Op. 53), the second scherzo, the first ballade, and even the barcarolle are all highly individual interpretations. His "revolutionary" and op. 25, no. 3, etudes are also brilliant, both technically and musically. In some of the smaller pieces, however—notably the mazurkas and waltzes—he sometimes seems tight and hesitant, employing a prissy touch to poke out too-clipped staccati.

But there's certainly nothing fruity about his "heroic" polonaise, a trumpeting statement that fittingly begins the disc. Thibaudet revels in the militaristic dotted rhythms, plunging ferociously into the scale flourishes. He dispatches the middle octave passage with Horowitzian aplomb, building up the intensity calculatedly and letting loose at the climaxes. Saving the best for last, Thibaudet charges into the coda with the energy of a cavalry charge. His brusque treatment of the concluding chords seems just what the leonine Pole intended.

The second scherzo is even more of a highlight for me, At the outset, he convincingly conveys the contrast of the whispering sotto voce triplets against the fortissimo chords in the treble. In the second theme, his left hand gracefully undulates while his melody tenderly sings. His rubato is free without being cloying or awkward. In the middle section, his tone is deep and languorous, a suitable respite from the passion of the outer sections. Once again, he breaks out at the coda, taking us to the edge of a plank without diving overboard into the sea of pounded-out sound that has engulfed so many other performances of Chopin's music in the modern era—including those by Kissin, Sokolov, and Ashkenazy.

While Thibaudet's first ballade and barcarolle are more of a mixed bag than the polonaise and second scherzo, there is still much to like in them. In the ballade, his opening statement is broad, though the waltzlike melody seems a bit too matter of fact—he should listen to what his forebear in the French tradition, Cortot, does with this. Yet in the fast sections, especially the coda, Thibaudet unleashes some fury. Though he never quite captures the piece's quasi-Lisztian grotesqueness, his is a steely rendition that's reminiscent of Horowitz's trailblazing performance. The same strong points he displays in the ballade, however, mar his overall conception of the barcarolle, though I sympathize with him because this is doubtless one of Chopin's most difficult pieces to interpret. Sofronitsky, Cortot, Richter, Marguerite Long, and many others have tried their hands, but no one seems to be able to convey the mix of languidness, passion, and sweep the piece requires. Thibaudet's tone throughout is on the harsh and brittle side, though his edgy nervosity at the climaxes (which reminded me of Sofronitsky) gets the heart pumping. All in all, Thibaudet's barcarolle is a young man's performance—headstrong, impatient, and a bit chary of falling in love—that nevertheless has an unusual intensity that should be a welcome relief to anyone who's been subjected to the wallowing of a Rubinstein.

As generally comfortable as he is with marking his territory in the big stuff, it's funny he couldn't muster more of an individual conception in the mazurka and waltz selections. Like Lipatti, Thibaudet plunks out the "minute" waltz rather metronomically with little color or differentiation of texture. His grande value brillante fares a bit better—the repeated notes are impressively light—but it's generally a pretty standard reading that captures little of the aura of a Cortot or a Rachmaninoff. And the two mazurkas, including the B-flat major (op. 7, no. 1) so boisterously rendered by the incomparable Ignaz Friedman, are bloodless in Thibaudet's hands, suffering from a clipped staccato and displaying little of the mazurka rhythm. 

Thibaudet's E minor prelude, too, like so many others—Pogorelich's and Kapell's come to mind—suffers from montony, an interpretation that is much too straight-laced and lacking in rhythmic and dynamic freedom. Surely this lobotomized performance contains little of the lament or tragedy the piece requires.

With the etude selections, however, Thibaudet is again in fine form. His super-fluid, ultra-clear technique is especially evident in op. 25, no. 3, which he takes at a brisk pace but without even a hint of struggle despite all the treacherous leaps. Though his texture is sometimes too thick in the more forte passages, he makes some capricious dynamic contrasts in the piano ones. Thibaudet's "revolutionary" may not have quite the feverish desperation of a Cortot or the biting clarity of a Saperton, but it's an extroverted performance that displays a rhythmic bite similar to his second scherzo interpretation. In op. 25, no. 1, he strums the "aeolian harp" gently, but at times becomes a bit over-zealous. As with his barcarolle, however, the clarity and phrasing of his approach are a welcome relief given all the soupy renditions out there.

Indeed, clarity—of rhythm, of texture, of phrasing—is one of Thibaudet's greatest strengths, a transparency he probably learned from his immersion in the great tradition of Madame Long. Thibaudet's may not be the grandest Chopin interpretations, but he infuses them with a point and elegance rarely heard among the recent generations of pianists.

Joe's Grade: B+      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016