Yesterday, Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the Debussy Préludes in Carnegie Hall—all of them: Book I and Book II, amounting to twenty-four preludes (a dozen in each book). Occasionally, you will hear one book or the other, constituting half a program. Radu Lupu, the late Romanian pianist, played the Debussy Préludes in Carnegie Hall. In a 2008 recital, he played Book I; in a 2013 recital, he played Book II. Thibaudet did them all in one go.
In every generation, there is a great French pianist, or two. And I am using the term “French pianist” broadly—to mean a player of French piano music, whatever his nationality. Usually, such a player is French, true. I think of Robert Casadesus. I also think of Monique Haas, who studied with him.
But I also think of Grant Johannesen, born in Salt Lake City. (He, too, studied with Casadesus.) Lupu was great. How about pianists today? Pianists apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet? I think of two Chinese pianists, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Each of them has shown fabulous skills in Debussy and Ravel. They have the fingers, they have the colors, and more.
In any event, Thibaudet is a great French pianist, in both senses, as he established long ago, and as he confirmed yesterday afternoon, in the Debussy Préludes.
I don’t think I have ever heard these pieces so unshowy. Thibaudet eschewed all display. The preludes were understated, subtle, nuanced. Also, Thibaudet played with an easy virtuosity. You have heard the expression “to wear one’s learning lightly.” Thibaudet wore his virtuosity lightly. But, heavens, it was there. As he played, I thought, “There was a boy who practiced his Czerny.”
His use of the sustain pedal was shrewd. Deft. I don’t think I have ever heard so little pedal in the Préludes. There was never too little, but never too much, either. Thibaudet played with remarkable limpidity, as a player of this music must. But he also added crunch, where appropriate. In “La cathédrale engloutie” (“The Sunken Cathedral”), he played deep, deep into the keys, producing fortissimos. But there was no pounding.
These preludes require a keen sense of rhythm. A little jazz, a little blues. Humor. Thibaudet supplied the Debussyan ingredients.
What to play for an encore, after those twenty-four? Personally, I would have played one of the preludes again. That would have been a true encore (for “encore” means “again” rather than “something else”). I think I would have played “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” which we know in English as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Or another Debussy piece, outside the Préludes? L’isle joyeuse?
Thibaudet opted for Liszt—the Consolation No. 3 in D flat. Someone once called it “the four most heavenly minutes in existence.”
I will jot a couple of footnotes. In the twenty-four preludes, Thibaudet used no sheet music. Others might have trouble remembering which piece comes next, to say nothing of the notes in the piece. (Indeed, remembering the order of the music might be the biggest challenge.)
And all afternoon long, cellphones went off. Ten times? Fifteen? Twenty? It was almost one phone per prelude. As a rule, I am tolerant of people whose phones go off, and sympathetic toward them. I feel bad for them, rather than censorious.
But if one phone goes off, then another, then five more—doesn’t that spur a person to check whether his own phone is off?