Champagne and Cheeseburgers

The dashing French piano virtuoso, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, known worldwide for his haute couture and sensitive yet masculine playing  joins an ensemble of seasoned symphony players and immediately raises everyone’s playing to a previously unimagined level. While trying his best to become subsumed into the morass of mostly unremarkable string playing,  Thibaudet, ever the pure chamber music colleague, somehow managed to become the most interesting person on stage on Tuesday night at TSRI as part of the San Diego Symphony’s Chamber Music Series. It was all this audience member could do to hold himself back from shouting at the other players to leave the stage so that he could just listen to the piano without further encumbrances.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet [Photo (c) Decca.Kasskara]

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
[Photo (c) Decca.Kasskara]

Nuvi Mehta opened with a highly entertaining, erudite and instructive set of verbal program notes. Speaking from memory, Mehta brought deep insights into this program of Mozart, Nikolay Andreyevich Roslavets and Dvořák, serving to unify the program and help all of the listeners, from the most novice to the most erudite, to enjoy it more profoundly.

The music making began tepidly enough with one of Mozart’s lightest of ditties, the String Duo for Violin and Viola No. 1 in G Major, K. 423. Helping out his old friend Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn) to finish a commission for six duos for violin and viola from Salzburg’s dreaded Prince-Archbishop Colloredo, Mozart added two duos to Haydn’s four so that Haydn could get paid. Colloredo would later comment how the final two of the set were his favorites, unaware that his former despised employee W.A. Mozart had composed them instead of the relatively well-behaved Haydn. Mozart later profited from his labors by publishing these works when he moved to Vienna.

While these pieces exemplify “Mozart Lite,” the composer’s masterful and deft touch still creates a fascinating sound world populated only by two. Everything is there: harmony, melody, deeply crafted form and even a bit of Sturm und Drang drama. The workmanlike performance of Kathryn Hatmaker, violin and Caterina Longhi, viola was just fine, but nothing to write home about.

Nikolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1899-1944) is experiencing a bit of a rebirth after being buried under Soviet-style muck since official misfortune befell him. In 1930 Roslavets was accused of being a “protector” of the Association of the Moscow Authors, which, according to the “Proletarian Musician” group, was promoting ‘light music’ and “spreading of counter-revolutionary literature”–whatever that could have meant for a composer! The secret police denounced him as being formalistic and anti-working-class. As a consequence, his music was shunned by the Soviet apparatchiks, and he was not accepted into the Composers’ Union, forcing him into a life of penury. He survived by working in Moscow as a day laborer and died there in 1944 after a series of debilitating strokes. His unmarked grave has only recently been identified and given a proper marker.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet [Photo (c) Decca.Kasskara]

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
[Photo (c) Decca.Kasskara]

The most disturbing thing about all of this is that music does not actually mean anything! Everything imputed to Roslavets’ non-vocal work, which forms the vast majority of his extant catalog, simply resided deep within the recesses of some lonely, sick bureaucrat’s brain who was judging it diffusely.

His “Nocturne” from 1913 owes a deep debt of gratitude to Scriabin. Deliciously orchestrated for two violas, cello, oboe and harp, one hears Scriabin’s “Mystic Chord” at the opening. A gorgeous, highly Impressionistic nocturne unfolds. The listener is struck by the sheer freshness of the writing and also with the singularity of expression coming from this composer. Although much of Roslavets’ music was destroyed by proletariat thugs, his works are starting to surface. One can only hope for more of them to find the light of day. Fine playing by oboist Sarah Skuster and harpist Julie Smith Phillips made listening to the brief “Nocturne” a delight.

A most curious sensation overcame me as the musicians assumed the stage after intermission for the main event: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 by Antonín Dvořák. Coming out without grandeur or fanfare, following behind his two female colleagues, Jean-Yves Thibaudet took his place in the back, next to the piano. My eyes were riveted to him. One had a palpable sense of being in the presence of a greatness bordering on majesty. His model good looks and stunning finery had less to do with this illusion than a light that seemed to emanate parabolically from deep within him. The simple plunking out of a tuning note for the string players had the gravitas of an entire piece. The man is apparently incapable of playing an ugly note, and, as such, his lone “A” was rounded and resonant.

The Quintet began with a gorgeous, expressive cello solo by Chia-Ling Chien, but Thibaudet remained by far the most interesting persona on stage, even though he was subsumed in the chamber partner/accompanist role. His potentially massive sound never once flirted with drowning out his colleagues, despite the music’s huge dynamic range from pp to ff. My thoughts through the entire first movement were that we were being served cheeseburgers in the person of the string ensemble with the very finest French champagne in the person of Thibaudet. Although we happened to have been served some very fine cheeseburgers indeed, all that I wanted at that point was more champagne. But there we sat with our cheeseburgers. Admittedly, very fine ones–yet cheeseburgers nonetheless.

As a musician who has been deeply steeped for the last forty years of my professional life in classical, popular and jazz idioms, I have always been struck by most classical players’ aversion to feeling a music’s rhythm physically. Most classical players actually play rhythmic notations with their eyes while calculating the necessary divisions of time, devoid of any sense of physical anchoring. I often wonder if they like to dance. I doubt it. Now, I don’t know for sure, but I bet that Thibaudet loves to dance. His “time feel” is so deeply physical as to be palpable. Any rhythmic wavering on the part of an ensemble becomes immediately clear when held up to a template like that. To the string players’ credit, for the most part, they reined in any grossly errant rhythmic proclivities. Yet, still, the only person “grooving” on stage was the Frenchman. The Symphony musicians should go out dancing more often.

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet is a treasure, one of his truly great masterpieces. The opening cello solo was played with a muscular limpidity that was perfectly supported by the pianist. Would that the other string players played with the same kind of deep expressivity of cellist Chien. I did, however, also enjoy the first violin work of Anna Skálová, who also seems to be a musician who might like to dance! Her strong and centered playing seemed to carry the rest of the ensemble while floating effortlessly above the foundation laid for her by Thibaudet and Chien.

One of the hallmarks of a truly great musician is that every phrase makes sense in creating an ineffable sense of narrative. Such was the case in last night’s performance and yet, it seemed to me that again, the narrative was being driven by one, very strong, sensitive and powerful individual–Thibaudet.

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