Thibaudet opens Kravis Center season with memorable Debussy

By Lawrence Budmen

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Debussy’s complete Preludes Monday afternoon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Between 1909 and 1913, Claude Debussy composed two books of Preludes, comprising 24 keyboard miniatures. These scores contain some of the impressionist master’s most striking and original music. 

Often pianists will perform a group of these short pieces as part of a solo program. On Monday afternoon Jean-Yves Thibaudet played both complete sets at the season-opening concert of the Kravis Center’s Regional Arts Classical Concert Series in West Palm Beach. The French pianist’s tour de force performance was a vibrant demonstration of rock-solid technique, idiomatic flair and artistry of the highest order.

While Thibaudet can be impressive in crowd-pleasing concerto showpieces, his art is at its zenith in the intimate solo recital where his sensitivity and musicality come to the fore. Thibaudet turned the vast Kravis Center into a cozy venue, the color and variety of his pianism shared with quiet and attentive listeners. Delicacy of touch and coloration rather than sheer volume were abundant throughout the afternoon. 

At the outset of Book I, Thibaudet evoked magical hues in “The Dancers of Delphi.” He brought out Debussy’s fascination with Asia and the East that dominates “Voiles” (Veils/ Sails), making every note and progression count. Thibaudet could really cut loose in bravura manner, and the ferocity of his octave-spanning volleys in “What the West Wind Has Seen” was electrifying. In a notably fresh  “Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” the pianist removed the accumulated dust of so many mundane play-throughs, and the feathery lightness and verve of the rapid, skittery figures in “The Wind in the Plain” brought out the pianist’s subtle artistry and the ability to make the familiar resound anew.

Thibaudet injected wit into “The Interrupted Serenade” as well as Mediterranean languor, and “The Hills of Anacapri” emerged as a fleet tarantella, articulated with supple dexterity. The rumbling bass at the beginning of “The Submerged Cathedral” set the stage for one of Debussy’s most memorable sound portraits. Thibaudet’s stately chording and variations of loud and soft tone vividly illustrated the structure’s rise to the surface and fall, the final notes seeming to come from some distant depths.  “Minstrels,“ which finds Debussy in unusually quirky mode, completed the concert’s first half with a display of incisive rhythmic acuity.

Book II of the Preludes is more ambitious. Here Debussy’s response to the artistic trends of the early 20th century is more evident. Thibaudet aptly captured the swirling lines and dissonant interjections of “Brouillards” (Mists). His poetic warmth of expression emblazoned “Bruyères”. The dancing tunes beneath the keyboard spanning strokes of “General Lavine – eccentric” were given transparent clarity. Thibaudet emphasized the Latin undercurrents in “La Puerta del vino” (The Wine Gate) and he made one marvel at the modernism of “Canope,” in many ways the vignette least characteristic of the composer. 

The evenness and support of his dynamic and tonal spectrum gave weight and beauty to “The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences.” “Alternating Thirds” was assayed with absolute security, as if child’s play, and the sudden changes of meter in “Homage à S. Pickwick, Esq.” (with a nod to Dickens) were smoothly achieved. Thibaudet made the final “Feux d’artiface” (Firework) a charmer, the variegated dynamics matching the fast-paced crisscrossing of his hands across the keyboard.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be as many empty seats as occupied ones in the auditorium and the hall emptied out considerably at intermission. Those who stayed for the entire program gave Thibaudet a standing ovation and repeated curtain calls, surprising from the often sedate Kravis matinee audience. Thibaudet said he found it difficult to find an encore after Debussy’s remarkable cycle but he offered Elgar’s Salut d’amour, a lyrical salon treat played with fluidity and elegance.

The Kravis Center’s classical series presents the New World Symphony under Marin Alsop playing Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with soloist Aaron Diehl  8 p.m. Sunday.

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Tue Dec 7, 2021
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