Pianist enthralls at Shriver Hall



April 08, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Just as a book is unwisely judged by its cover, Jean-Yves Thibaudet's recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday night would have been unwisely judged by its rather bland opening. The rest of the program turned out as riveting as a red-hot novel. I hated to reach the last page.

Thibaudet is always worth listening to, of course. He has been at the pianistic forefront for more than two decades, admired for his technical aplomb and sophisticated sense of style (musical and fashion-wise). But in the group of Chopin pieces he offered at the start of the evening - pairs of nocturnes, etudes and waltzes - his tone and phrasing were as urbane as the sleek leather jacket he sported. Everything was cool, correct, detached. I prefer a little more poetry and personality with my Chopin.

Those qualities emerged in abundance, however, as soon as the French pianist reached Liszt's Dante Sonata. With the sheer digital challenges of the score under almost total control, he was free to concentrate on the dark colors and swirling emotions in this musical reaction to reading Dante's Inferno. The playing had a taut, passionate edge that easily revealed Liszt's genius at aural painting and kept the work's architecture in clear view.

In a selection from Debussy's Etudes, Thibaudet generated a prism of atmospheric shades from the keyboard. Satie's popular Gymnopedie No. 1 floated by with the gentlest of rhythmic fluctuations, sounding fresher than ever. That composer's more outgoing and witty side, reflected in Gnossienne No. 7 and The Dreamy Fish, inspired classy pianism.

As a kind of counterpart to Liszt's descent into the infernal realm, the official part of the program closed with a mystical vision - the long finale of Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus. Thibaudet's incisiveness whetted the appetite for the mesmerizing score, though this excerpt certainly provided much to savor.

Undeterred by conventional expectations about form or length, Messiaen was free to let his intense religious devotion run free. His faith was so open, so euphoric that he never tired of expressing it, which explains the sequence of hammered, ecstatic chords that keep coming back in this contemplation on the infant Jesus.

Messiaen's lifelong fascination with birdcalls is here, too, resulting in bright bursts of song in the upper reaches of the keyboard that Thibaudet executed with particular brilliance. His whole performance had a luminous quality, which he maintained in his first encore - the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, as transcribed by Liszt. He shaped this glorious "love-death" exquisitely, building each emotional wave with lyrical power and letting the music breathe fully.

In a now-for-something-completely-different move, Thibaudet followed that encore with a smokin' dash through Dick Hyman's arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Jubilee Stomp." A disarming finish.

Municipal Opera

There's a surprising amount of amusement left in Menotti's 1939 comic opera The Old Maid and the Thief, not to mention a lot of musical charm. From the recurring, sighing line about the awful weather to the lyrical aria "Steal Me, Sweet Thief," the composer's typically deft touch can be felt at every turn of the score. His rhyme-filled libretto holds up, too, propelling a slender plot about a beggar who awakens the interest of an old maid and an servant-type maid when they invite him into their home. The first opera written for radio broadcast, it moves quickly to its slightly quirky end.

The Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore had fun with the piece over the weekend at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church.

Jocelyn Taylor, as the neighborhood busybody Miss Pinkerton, was the vocal standout, with a sweet, well-focused soprano and superb diction. Alexandra Phillips made a perky Laetitia, the maid who gets the better of her employer; the soprano's voice could have used more warmth, but her phrasing hit the mark. Jessica Tedford was mostly effective as the spinster, Miss Todd. Although Christopher Steward's acting needed more finesse, he filled out the melodic lines of the mysterious Bob nicely.

Charles Hayes led the propulsive performance from the piano, playing a reduction of the orchestral score with sufficient flair. Director Ron Oaks kept things moving within a quaintly evocative set.

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