Timing counts for Thibaudet Profile: At the piano and in life, the French pianist has a well-developed sense of when to do things.

July 23, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Jean-Yves Thibaudet has a precise sense of time.

The French pianist was in his New York apartment exactly at the scheduled 10 a.m. for a telephone interview a few days ago. Twenty-nine minutes later -- just short of what he had been promised would be a half-hour interview -- he politely cleared his throat, and, when his caller did not get the message, Thibaudet began to play the opening notes of Debussy's "Broullards."

It was clearly time to practice.

The pianist will open his recital tonight at 8: 30 in Tawes Theatre at the University of Maryland in College Park with "Broullards." Throughout an international career that is already 15 years old, the pianist, 34, has always distinguished himself with a sense of when to do things.

Several years ago, Thibaudet's superb performances of Ravel -- his album of the composer's complete music on the Decca-London label in 1992 was nominated for a Grammy, won Germany's prestigious Schallplattenpreis and won Great Britain's Gramophone magazine award as the year's best recording by an instrumentalist -- resulted in invitations to perform and record Debussy's music.

"I said 'No' for a number of reasons," Thibaudet says. "One was that I did not want to be identified solely as a performer of French music and I didn't want to do Ravel and Debussy back to back. But the most important reason was musical -- I knew I needed to mature before I turned from Ravel to Debussy."

The two composers' identification as musical "impressionists" is misleading, Thibaudet says.

"Ravel's music is brilliant and wonderful, but it descends almost directly from Liszt and it is much easier for a young pianist to

play," he says. "Debussy's music also descends from such Liszt pieces as the 'Jeux D'Eau [a la Villa d'Este],' but there is an even stronger connection to Chopin, whose music Debussy edited and performed. In terms of learning the actual notes, there may be only 30 minutes difference between the two composers. It is learning to create the atmosphere that Debussy's music needs that is the difficult thing. There is much more sensuality and much more emotion -- and that requires the interpreter to have done some living."

Thibaudet's superb English -- idiomatic and with the barest trace of an accent -- comes from having lived in this country since 1984. He first came here as a 17-year-old for the Robert Casadesus Competition, in which he took second prize. In the following year, he won the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York. That resulted in a growing presence on the North American scene that made it necessary for Thibaudet -- though he keeps a home in Paris -- to acquire an apartment in New York.

He remains close to his teacher at the Paris Conservatory, Aldo Ciccolini, a pianist he admires "for his capacity to change."

Ciccolini came to attention first as a performer of Liszt and of French composers, and he grew eventually into a distinguished interpreter of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

Thibaudet also became known as an exponent of French music and of Liszt, which entirely occupies the second half of his College Park program. But he has also widened his scope to include the German Romantics -- there is a superb recent album of Schumann's "Etudes Symphoniques" and Brahms' "Paganini Variations" -- and Russian music.

The final installment (Rachmaninov's Concertos Nos. 1 and 3) of his four-year project to record all of the composer's music for piano and orchestra with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra is finally in stores. And the years to come, the pianist says, will bring more Rachmaninov (the Second Sonata and the Preludes) and more Brahms (the two concertos).

Thibaudet has always had special affection for Brahms, but resisted the temptation to perform his music until he was well into his 30s.

"For Brahms, you need not only emotional maturity but also the sheer depth of sound that comes from physical maturity," says the pianist, a strapping 6-footer with the build of a pole-vaulter.

But if Thibaudet knows when to begin, he also knows when to stop.

A few weeks back, he and his producer at Decca-London, Evans Mirageas, planned for recordings through the year 2003.

It was in that final year -- when Thibaudet will be 40 -- that the company wanted him to record all 12 of Liszt's fiendishly difficult "Transcendental Etudes."

"I told Evans that if he wanted those pieces, it has to be in the next year or two," Thibaudet says. "Playing those pieces is like being a fighter pilot -- you need the energy and the craziness you have only when you're young!"

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist

Where: Tawes Theatre, University of Maryland College Park

When: 8: 30 p.m. tonight

Tickets: $20 general admission, $16 for seniors and $12 for students

Call: (301) 405-6538

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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