Midori and Thibaudet: A Dream Team Scores with Gallic Élan at The Conrad

For her decidedly Gallic recital on Friday (April 12) at the newly opened Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla, the estimable Midori wisely enlisted French pianist Jean-Ives Thibaudet as her collaborator. For sonatas by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Georges Enescu—yes, he was Romanian, but he studied in Paris and lived most of his life in the City of Light—this was a match made in heaven.

Midori [photo (c.) Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

To Midori’s gleaming sonority and rapturous motivic flair Thibaudet

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

brought his immaculate yet unfailingly poetic keyboard touch. In Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, the duo floated the slow movement’s delicate counterpoint as an intimate conversation,  beautifully sustained in Baker-Baum’s warm acoustic embrace. Yet they vigorously fired the final movement’s roiling Romantic urgency, and they dispatched scherzo’s rapid feu follet thematic arcs with breath-taking nonchalance.

Debussy’s late in life—and hardly Impressionist—Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor now appears to be getting the respect I believe it has always deserved. Once quite rarely encountered in live performance, it has begun to resurface on recitals, and Midori and Thibaudet’s acutely insightful account of the Debussy Sonata made a splendid case for its place in the repertory. In its opening movement, a kaleidoscope of wildly contrasting ideas, Midori spun out imploring themes, a kind of instrumental cantillation, over Thibaudet’s dense, acerbic piano arabesques. Midori dispatched beautifully etched traceries in the middle movement, while Thibaudet disarmed us with arresting pianisssimo progressions below her. My notes on the duo’s performance of the final movement include terms such as “manic drive” and “rhapsodic urgency,” but to tell the truth, if I had jotted down the term “rhapsodic” every time this duo’s performance prompted it in my mind, I would have been forced to use the term to describe nearly every aspect of this recital.

Although Enescu wrote his Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor a mere nine years after Debussy’s 1917 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Europe’s music scene had changed markedly in the post World War I decade. Like Bartók, Enescu’s research into the folk music of Central Europe brought exotic tonal systems and highly asymmetrical rhythms into his musical vocabulary, and many of the themes and harmonies of his Violin Sonata suggest a stroll through a humid Middle Eastern bazaar. Like Debussy, Enescu found little attraction to traditional sonata form; he skips from meandering cantabile themes to raffish peasant dance rhythms, and ideas seldom repeat. For all the musical tricks Enescu has up his sleeve,  Midori and Thibaudet deftly navigated his surprises with aplomb, and we were all the more charmed. They made Enescu’s Sonata an exhilarating and rewarding journey.

This duo recital experienced a rather difficult beginning, however. In the opening work, Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105, the dynamic level between the two performers was so unbalanced that Midori at times disappeared under the torrent of Thibadet’s impassioned piano textures. Granted that Schumann was more skilled at composing for his own instrument, the piano, but he surely did not intend for the violinist to be crushed by the piano’s thunder. Perhaps due to Fauré’s more transparent piano textures, their balance improved slightly in their second offering. I suspect that during the program’s intermission, this serious imbalance was brought to their attention, because on the second half, the balance between violin and piano proved far more equal.

Perhaps to show they could make a Schumann sonata work properly in the hall, for their first encore the duo played–with proper balance–the third movement from Schumann’s Second Violin Sonata. For their second encore, they offered a transcription of Fauré’s beloved chanson “Après une rêve.” It summed up in just a few eloquent moments the heart of their Gallic adventure.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society as part of the organization’s Coming Home Festival on April 12, 2019, in The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall. The festival continues through May 19, 2019.

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