Monthly Archives: March 2023

Jean-Yves Thibaudet & Debussy

Sunday, March 26, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco:  Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Claude Debussy’s Preludes, Books 1 and 2 and blew the minds of everyone in the hall. These Debussy works are seldom heard all together. Maybe some extraordinary pianist would perform the Preludes of one of the Books or possibly one or a few of the Preludes, but who would or could perform all of them? So far as I know, only M. Thibaudet. The Preludes are works for solo piano. Each “Book” has 12 of them. Not one of them is like any of the others, except for their miniature form: each is between two and four minutes long.

Claude Debussy, composer (1862 – 1918)

These pieces are not the prelude to something else; they may be brief, but each one is a world in itself. Frederic Chopin wrote 24 Preludes but they did not have names or descriptions. Debussy’s are written with each one having a descriptive word according to its meter or mood. The first one of Book 1 is “Lent et grave,” slow and serious. However, Debussy also gives each one a descriptive title that appears at the end of each prelude. In the first one of Book 1 it is “Danseuses de Delphes,” The Dancers of Delphi. Another one in Book 1, the third prelude, has Anime as its traditional heading: Animated. The descriptive name at the end: “Le Vent dans le plaine/suspend son haleine;” “The wind over the plain/Holds its breath.” This is one of the literary quotations or references that appear in the Preludes. The phrase may be from Charles Simon-Favart, an 18th century composer and playwright. Later, the French poet Paul Verlaine used it as a heading for his poem, “L’extase langoureuse.” In 1874. Debussy had made a song of Verlaine’s poem. These artists are in tune with their culture, whether it is the culture of a century ago or current.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet, French pianist who lives in Los Angeles

Capricieux et leger, the 11th Prelude of Book 1, also has the title, “La Danse de Puck.” The Puck of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a playful jokester. The music of this Prelude has the liveliness of Puck’s flying and jumping and his occasionally trouble-making character. Debussy loved Shakespeare and was also an anglophile. In Book 2, the 9th Prelude is Grave, Hommage a S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C.. It honors Samuel Pickwick from Charles Dickens’s first book, The Pickwick Papers. 

M. Thibaudet always dresses elegantly. This time, he appeared in black. From where I was sitting I saw him well but may have missed details, except for his shoes. I could see the bright bar across the top of his foot. I mention this because it drew my eye to his feet. In the program notes, James M. Keller quotes composer Alfredo Casella, a Debussy contemporary, who also took note of Debussy’s feet: “Moreover, he used the pedals in a way all his own.” I am convinced that M. Thibaudet did so, too. Most of the time, I could see only the downstage foot (the foot closest to the audience). The upstage foot must have been exactly parallel and doing its own pedal thing.

Here is more from Alfredo Casella on Debussy’s playing: “…his sensibility of touch was incomparable; he made the impression of playing directly on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism; the effect was a miracle of poetry.”

This is an apt description of M. Thibaudet’s playing as well.

While it is entertaining to glance through the traditional citations and names like “Modere (Brouillards) Moderate…Mists, it would be a terrible mistake to disregard the beauty and difficulty of the music. No one in the audience could fail to realize the magnificence of M. Thibaudet’s performance. It was literally stunning to watch and listen. Each Prelude has its own meter, a special tone, a unique set of technical challenges. The pianist does not have a through-line of theme or color or emotion. The Preludes are a celebration of the particular. Attention to the most challenging individual elements of the pianist’s technique cannot waver. It is more intense and requires more precision than an Olympic Decathlon and probably as much strength and energy.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed something that maybe no one since Debussy himself has done, or done so well. He took the challenge of performing both Books and embraced the vast variety and individual beauties of the Preludes. It could be compared to tight rope walking between two high rise buildings while playing master level chess. The audience cheered and applauded for at least 5 curtain calls. M. Thibaudet succumbed to the audience’s raptures and played Sir Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour as his encore. It was a salute to the program’s complexity, charm, originality, and earth-moving beauty. The audience called M. Thibaudet back for another 4 or 5 chances to applaud him before everyone reluctantly realized the music was over for this night.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet will perform the solo program of Debussy’s Preludes throughout the US and Europe this year. He also will appear in recital with Renee Fleming and will tour in the US and Japan with Midori. In addition, he will perform with Itzhak Perlman and Friends in New York City, Michigan, Toronto. The French Ministry of Culture awarded him the title, Officier, in 2012. He is a great artist; don’t miss him.




Hilary Hahn and J.S. Bach

Hilary Hahn’s solo recital on March 12 was truly great. The word astonishing fits except that it is not a surprise when Ms Hahn performs in a way that combines flawless technique with emotion, color, and devotion to the music. While hearing her play three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works for solo violin, I knew that this was pure Bach. There is no ego or personal style filtering the music. The music did not need such additions; it was exciting, an on-the-edge-of- the-seat experience. It was pure music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The program offered Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV, 1002; and, after intermission, Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

Hilary Hahn, Violinist

Purity does not mean that it was simple. Every note, every multiple note created a world of sound. Sound is a real, physical thing. It can change the world around it. Sound can move mountains; consider an avalanche.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor is listed first of Bach’s six works for solo violin. Its parts are Adagio, Fuga: Allegro, Siciliano, Presto. The order of Slow, Fast, Slow, Fast is intentional. It balances classical order with the interweaving of free imagination and openmindedness. There is a mathematical intelligence at play. My college roommate, Leah Johnson Wilcox, was a math major. I knew she knew games of balance and dimensions and that I would never be able to play on that field. Ms Hahn’s superb intelligence is a wonderful match with Bach’s. Together, they explore balance, space, rhythms; they play with time and space. The listener is joyfully immersed in the mathematics of music without really knowing it is happening.

The Partitas have movements named for dances. The Siciliano in Sonata No. 1 is the only dance character in the Sonatas. Baroque dances were crazy complicated in their patterning of order. Partita No. 1 in B minor opens with an Allemande, and then its Double; next comes a Courante and its Double: Presto; Sarabande, and its Double; Tempo di Borea (Bourree) – and its Double. The Double is an ancestor of a jazz variation; it spins out something new from a standard. Here, the music takes off from the musical idea of the dance movement first presented. The rhythms and characters of the dances go beyond a restatement of a physical, 18thc. dance. The music tells us the DNA of a Courante’s running motion or the Sarabande’s dignity and sadness. It is not only the heart of the music in motion; it exposes Bach’s understanding of the electrical pulses and chemical interactions that keep it alive.

Restraint can be beautiful. Order can breathe. These violin solo works are not embroidered or showing off innovation. They combine profound creativity with their classic forms.

There were moments in the recital when I am certain I heard Bach speak. Did Bach invent music? I know that is not true, not entirely true. It only seems that way sometimes. There are not adequate ways to describe Ms Hahn’s greatness. Standing alone on an empty stage, she filled the stage and Davies Hall with her presence and her powerful connection to the music she made.

The Partita No. 2 in G minor shares its format with Partita No. 1 but its Fate led it somewhere else. This one has no Doubles, but it does have five movements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, and Chaconne. The mood of the first four movements is tinged with reflection, controlled order; if we were to use Romantic thoughts we might find regret. The Gigue (Jig) takes rhythm over the mountain, dancing with wild energy which takes the rhythmic demands farther than one could expect, and even farther than that. And then, there is the Chaconne. It is very long, so long as the all the first four movements together. It gives us a theme and then sixty-four variations. I do not remember breathing as I heard this majestic music. It gathers the knowledge of music’s world and, in the last two strokes of the bow, made my heart stop in awe.

For more about Ms Hahn, please see the article at   about her Davies Hall recital on April 26, 2016, with Cory Smythe, pianist. The program included work by Mozart, Bach, Aaron Copland, and Tina Davidson’s Blue Curve of the Earth, the winner of a competition for new encore pieces sponsored by Ms Hahn.