When it comes to concert pianists, they seem to fall loosely into three categories. There is the demonstrative virtuoso whose playing exhibits as much visual as musical effort, who likes the audience to know just how much physical and mental effort is involved and for whom sweat, agony and ecstasy are just daily tools of the trade. This type of pianist is a dying breed, largely supplanted by the second category; the player who is so totally "at one" with the piano that both instrument and player seem inseparable. This player is so clearly involved in the music that even the profoundly deaf would probably identify the specific work being played. And then there is the detached, almost dispassionate player, who seems to keep the piano at arm's length and shows no outward signs of effort either physical or musical. Perhaps the most obvious example of this last category is the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
I am minded to make these observations after last night's Thibaudet recital at Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall where my view of the stage was obscured by a particularly broad-shouldered man sat in front of me. When I tilted myself over to the left, I could see Thibaudet sat stock still and rigid; when I tilted the other way I could see the piano and Thibaudet's hands and fingers elegantly caressing the keyboard. I had to assume they were Thibaudet's hands and fingers since at no point was I able to see both piano and Thibaudet in the same view; there was a fundamental disconnect between my right vision which revealed gracefully flowing fingers, wafting over the keys with, it would appear, barely enough effort to depress the notes, and the stiff, somewhat rigid figure in my left vision. Now well into his mid-50s (isn't it time he updated his publicity photos?) and looking as if the slightest movement might burst the seams of his extremely tight-fitting concert attire (we read it is "by celebrated London designer Vivienne Westwood", a fact that follows Thibaudet around like a strong perfume and which, while it has absolutely no relevance to musicians, is presumably an essential part of his concert biography for financial reasons) Thibaudet at the piano is the epitome of discretion.
Such understated, undemonstrative playing is ideal for Ravel, and with the second half of his recital devoted to his compatriot's music, Thibaudet revealed why, of all living pianists, he delves more deeply into the true soul of this music. Hearing (and seeing) this discreet, elegant and poised pianist evokes with astonishing power, the true essence of Ravel. Somehow, the amazement, astonishment and perplexity with which much of this music was greeted at its first airing a century ago, is potently recreated by performances which understate the romanticism (forget silly notions of periodicity, Ravel was as Romantic as Czerny, Chopin and Chaikovsky) and emphasises its subtly and delicacy. Miroirs was totally enchanting - so much so, in fact, that I had no idea whether Thibaudet actually played all five sections or just four - but what had me most deeply affected was Thibaudet's wonderfully translucent and fluid account of Pavane pour une infante defunte. Ravel objected to over-sentimentality in performances of his most popular piano composition, and at one point suggested that it was really a Pavane for a "barren princess". He may have been speaking in extremes, but I suspect not. It was written for a woman who denied herself the gift of child-bearing; something which clearly Ravel, with his almost idealised love of children, could not comprehend. Thibaudet's beautifully understated account seemed to evoke with uncanny acuity a picture of a woman of graceful bearing viewed with pity tinged with regret. No abject sorrow or sadness, no self-indulgent moping around; this was a performance I suspect got completely into the spirit of what Ravel intended. It was, to put it in a word, lovely.
Thibaudet's distant approach was also ideal for the Schumann Kinderszenem with which he opened the programme. With a copy of the music propped up in front of him and sitting stock still, as if to underline the deliberate non-virtuoso character of the music, he drew from the piano a kaleidoscopic array of subtle tone colours and textural nuances which elevated it far above the child-like simplicity of the basic musical character. Children in the audience, of which there were many (and all as immaculately behaved as were the entire audience, who sat enraptured throughout the entire concert) might have gone home inspired or depressed at hearing music they probably play in their lessons, delivered with such finesse.
The main work in the first half was Schumann's First Sonata, a work I have always felt showed Schumann trying too hard to achieve something and ending up achieving nothing. Thibaudet did not convince me otherwise, and while there were lovely moments, the rambling and incoherent final movement seemed as rambling and incoherent as ever, despite the graceful way those disembodied hands and fingers floated so effortlessly over the keys.