Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Debussy recital Friday (Nov. 2) at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium was not for the timid or casual aesthete. His program was no sampler of Debussy’s greatest hits, but an elegant master class that probed the gamut of the composer’s idiom for his favored instrument.
With consummate technical prowess and uncanny insight, Thibaudet conducted a riviting class that took us through the sometimes enigmatic Second Book of 12 Preludes, two suites—“Estampes” and “Suite Bergamasque”—and the exuberant tour de force “L’isle Joyeuse.”
He devoted the recital’s first half to the Preludes, traversing all 12 without break or applause, except at the end, for which the audience response was indeed rapturous. Although these pieces sport rather picturesque titles—e.g., “Fog,” “Heather,” “Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers”—they tend toward abstraction rather than a Richard Strauss mode of explicit depiction.
This trait brought forth Thibaudet’s ample Gallic sangfroid, which left his listeners admiring his elegant and unruffled execution, but somewhat emotionally distanced. There were a few notable exceptions, however, including more than a hint of the sardonic in his account of “Homage to S. Pickwick Esq” (Debussy’s send-up of the Charles Dickens character), a touch of whimsy in “Ondine,” and mysterious introspection in “Canope.”
Debussy climaxes his Preludes with “Fireworks,” a glittering showpiece that easily lives up to its title, but it proved to be only the trailer for Thibaudet’s greater display of pyrotechnics, his amazing “L’isle Joyeuse” that concluded his recital.
For the program’s second half, Thibaudet loosened his tie, figuratively, and invited us into[php snippet=1] his more ardent take on Debussy. In the neo-classical “Suite Bergamasque,” I admired his authoritative, bold definition to the opening Prelude and his expansive, brightly colored account of the Menuet. He stripped the familiar “Clair de lune” of its typical gauzy Impressionist couture, which I found refreshing, and donned a butch motorcycle helmet for the rollicking closing Passepied.
“Estampes,” Thibaudet’s pièce de résistance, had everything I hoped for in a Debussy performance: silverly octaves and glittering trills in the orientalist “Pagodas,” erotic innuendo in the underpinning habenera of “Night in Grenada,” and brilliant articulation combined with vivid colors in “Gardens in the Rain.”
Rightly assuming that our Debussy folder was filled, he gave two contrasting encores, a shimmering, introspective account of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, and a take no prisoners performance of Earl Wild’s rhapsodic toccata on “Embraceable You.”
Did he know that in earlier days—when the young Thibaudet was still practicing his Czerny—Wild used to hang around La Jolla’s salons and watering holes? In any case, his panache sent us out exuberantly into the cool evening air.
Next Frieman Family Piano Series recital: Yefim Bronfman on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
La Jolla Music Society 858.459.3728; www.ljms.org