March 12, 2010
Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a national treasure of France. A frequent visitor to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Thibaudet brought an unexpected calling card this time: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. With his combination of showmanship, artistry and daredevil technique, this was Grieg like you have never heard it before.
Thibaudet nearly stole the show in Friday’s Gallic-flavored concert, even treating the audience to a rare encore (Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2). But there was much to savor in the two French symphonies that framed the concerto, as well, both exuberantly led by Paavo Järvi.
Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which came after intermission, is one of the gems of the piano literature. One might have guessed, from Thibaudet’s opening flourish, with his head thrown back, that this would be a reading in the grand romantic tradition.
And so it was. Thibaudet put his magical touch to work in the poetic themes, and brought dash and excitement to the fireworks. The first movement’s cadenza was thrilling and splashy, like a joyride with the wind in your face. Fresh and bracing, it inspired bravos before the piece concluded.
The slow movement was beautifully felt, and the pianist’s dialogue with Thomas Sherwood on French horn was one of many glowing moments in this collaboration. But no one seemed to be having more fun than Thibaudet, who communicated sheer joy in the finale, as he balanced romantic themes against electrifying double-octave runs and cascades of virtuosities – all performed without breaking a sweat.
Järvi anticipated every note, and the orchestra supported the pianist wonderfully. His Brahms was a sumptuous contrast, all about rich sonority and ringing tone.
The evening opened with the Cincinnati Symphony’s first performance of Henri Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1, written in 1951. A work in four movements, this was also something unexpected, echoing forebears such as Debussy and Berlioz, but also evoking ‘50s film music. The first movement, a passacaglia, unfolded in varied moods and colors, with bold brass and flourishes in the percussion.
Järvi went for clarity, precise attack and unflagging intensity. The scherzo had a kind of driving power, as the strings scurried at a frenzied tempo, and themes ricocheted between the instruments. The least convincing movement was the third, which sagged, but the finale was magical, with sweeping, impressionistic colors in the strings, finally leaving the listener with a beautifully shaped violin solo (Timothy Lees).
It has been two decades since the orchestra has played Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which concluded the evening. Even though the composer wrote it at age 17, Järvi made it apparent that this is the composer of “Carmen.” The operatic touches were undeniable – the singing quality of the oboe (Dwight Parry) the lush, romantic melodies in the strings, the echoing horn calls, and the red-blooded scherzo. This, too, was fresh and galvanizing, and it was brilliantly played and conducted.
Don’t miss it.