Jean-Yves Thibaudet — Debussy Préludes

Préludes, Books I & II

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 6 December, 2021
Venue: Dreyfoos Concert Hall, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, West Palm Beach, Florida

Although Debussy never suggested that his Préludes were meant to be played as sets, that practice has become accepted, and, as Jean-Yves Thibaudet demonstrated in this superlative recital, aptly so. From the moment his fingers touched the keyboard, Thibaudet had us transfixed. He captured the essential spirit of each Prélude while masterfully meeting technical challenges with virtuosity and subtlety. This was also one of those rare occasions when an artist’s piano could be heard to stand out above the norm; the Steinway’s keyboard and pedals responding to Thibaudet’s every nuance, with each note sounding with crystal clarity.

Thibaudet brilliantly juxtaposed the two depictions of wind in Book I, his rapid figurations portraying its steady sweeping movement across the landscape in ‘Le vent dans la plaine’, then bringing out its destructive force in ‘Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest’ (What the West Wind Saw), revolutionary in its harmonic structure, with uncommon intervals and tritones abounding. The latter Prélude was a tour de force; Thibaudet’s phrasing superb and his technique amazing. He depicted the titular footsteps of ‘Des pas sur la neige’ as heavily trudging down a snowy path as if leaving from an unhappy encounter, the atmosphere lightening after a momentary pause, then ending on a dissonant note. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) was played with sentimental tenderness, as if longing for a lost love. The longest of the Préludes, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (The Submerged Cathedral), was yet another highlight, Thibaudet summoning up the sounds of bells, organ and chant from the mythical cathedral, his pacing and dynamic modulations uncannily suggestive of its rising from and sinking back into the sea.

Book II began in the atmospheric mists of ‘Brouillards’, with Thibaudet’s airy right-hand figures relieving the fog’s density, and then shifted to the barren landscape of ‘Feuilles mortes’. These were succeeded by the ostinato of a habañera in ‘La Puerta del Vino’, evoking flamenco dancers at a gate to the Alhambra in Granada. Thibaudet also emphasized the depiction of dancing in both ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’, inspired by an illustration of Peter Pan dancing on a spider’s web, and ‘General Lavine – excentric’ in which the eponymous American comic actor dances a cakewalk. In the succeeding Préludes, Thibaudet brought out the harmonic exoticism of ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’, the aquatic frolicking of the water spirit ‘Ondine’, and in ‘Hommage á S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.’, the wit of Debussy’s tribute to the protagonist of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, beginning with the UK National Anthem. The concluding ‘Feux d’artifice’ was an aptly explosive showpiece of Thibaudet’s incredible technical prowess.

His encore was Elgar’s Salut d’amour.

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