Dubbed “Divine Debussy,” the concert commemorated the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and though head-to-head with election night in “swing state” Ohio, drew a sizeable crowd away from their TV sets.
Presented by the Constella Festival of Music and Fine Arts, it is hard to imagine a finer salute.
Thibaudet, dapper and distinguished at the nine-foot Steinway moved to the hall for the occasion, offered a delectable sampler of Debussy’s music, including Book Two of his Préludes, “Suite bergamasque,” “Estampes” and “L’Isle joyeuse.”
He opened with the Préludes, giving each of the twelve an eloquent interpretation, marked by precise touch and masterful pedaling. Clear images penetrated the enveloping, tonally vague “Brouillards” (“Mists”). “Feuilles mortes” (“Dead Leaves”) was somber, yet crisp, with a touch of tragedy and an unresolved end. The ripples of notes in “La puerta del Vino” (the Wine Gate at the Alhambra in Spain), were like splashes of paint against a canvas.
“Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (“The fairies are exquisite dancers”) -- inspired by an illustration by Arthur Rackham for James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” -- sparkled a la Tinkerbell, while the folk-like “Bruyèrès” (“Moors”) aimed straight for the heart. In “Général Lavine – eccentric,” Debussy’s portrait of a real-life American clown, Thibaudet opened with a bang, segued into a strutting cakewalk, and ended with fortissimo “bumps.” By contrast, “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune” (“The terrace for moonlight audiences”) had a cosmic dimension, sealed at the end by widely spaced, faraway chords.
The playful antics of the water nymph “Ondine” emerged clearly from beneath Thibaudet’s fingers, in charming contrast to “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. (Charles Dickens’ Samuel Pickwick of the “Pickwick Papers”), which began with a booming quotation from “God Save the King.” “Canope” (“Canopic Jar”) was distant, solemn and voiced beautifully. He took “Les tierces alternées” (“Alternating Thirds”) at a fast clip, with lines cleanly sculpted by dynamics. Ignited by a sudden downward glissando, "Feux d’artifice” (“Fireworks”) brought the first half to a dazzling conclusion.
“Suite bergamasque,” which looks back to the French clavecinists, was successively sonorous (“Prélude”), serio-comic (“Menuet”) and frolicsome (“Passepied”), while Thibaudet made “Clair de lune” his own, with breath-taking sonorities and rhythmic nuance.
He was at his coloristic best in “Estampes” (the title denotes images printed from wood or copper plates). “Pagodas” (influenced by Javanese gamelan music) was perfumed and exotic, as was “La soirée dans Grenade” (“Evening in Granada”), with its habanera rhythms and use of the Arabic scale. “Jardins sous le pluie” (“Gardens in the Rain”), rained up a storm, from droplets to downpour.
Thibaudet saved the real fireworks for last, with “L’Isle joyeuse” (“The Happy Island”). Opening with rapid trills and a barrage of notes, he gave it just the right mix of calm, rhapsody and boundless -- even fierce -- joy, holding nothing back at the end.
Responding to a repeated ovation, he performed two encores, Earl Wild’s tender/extravagant arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and a gentle waltz by Schubert.