Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the Seattle Symphony’s first artist in residence, dazzled on Sunday afternoon in a challenging piano recital of Schumann and Ravel. Next stop for his program: Carnegie Hall.
One of the nicest things Ludovic Morlot has ever done for Seattle is his appointment of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever artist in residence this season.
That new role has brought the French-born Thibaudet here for some important events, from judging the symphony’s first piano competition to appearing with Morlot and the orchestra in the September opening-night gala. On Sunday afternoon, Thibaudet produced one of his most remarkable works thus far — a dazzling piano recital that he’ll repeat at Carnegie Hall in New York on Nov. 11.
The program, half Schumann and half Ravel, asks just about everything of a pianist, including poetry, intelligence, artistic flexibility and high-level technical chops. And it asks even more: the ability to take some deceptively easy pieces, ones that every amateur pianist plays at home, and polish them into little miracles of subtlety that guarantee you’ll never see or hear “Träumerei” or “Pavane for a Dead Princess” in quite the same way again.
Thibaudet takes the familiar and molds it into something so exquisitely nuanced that you finally realize the true worth of these often-butchered little gems. He has the rare ability to make listeners reconsider repertoire and hear the music in a new way — a gift indeed.
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The 54-year-old pianist, an established star, is long past the point where he needs to prove himself, but this recital may well have surpassed even his fans’ expectations. The opening work, Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (“Scenes from Childhood”), emerged in a dreamy reverie in which the keys were not so much struck as coaxed into sound. The little “scenes” were minor miracles of subtlety, deftly characterized, clearly elucidated and artfully pedaled.
Thibaudet was more powerfully dramatic in Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1. Here, he alternated a headlong urgency with more reflective sections, which emerged with the mysteriously veiled touch that Thibaudet does so well.
The second half was all Ravel, with the deceptively simple “Pavane for a Dead Princess” and the glittering “Miroirs,” which consists of five brilliantly colored virtuoso pieces that require not only technical finesse, but the ability to paint a musical picture: mournful birdsong, a gently rocking boat, the castanets and strumming guitar of a serenade. Thibaudet excels in creating these descriptive nuances. You could practically smell the salt air and feel the waves during “Une barque sur l’océan.”
The finale, “Alborada del Gracioso,” brought the audience to its feet with a well-earned ovation. Thibaudet met the resounding applause with three encores — and a kiss for the Steinway grand piano, one the artist obviously loves. He played three beautiful miniatures: Brahms’ eloquent Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2; Chopin’s F Major Etude, Op. 25. No. 3; and the elegantly simple Schubert/Strauss “Kupelwieser” Waltz in G-Flat Major.