Tiberghien explores piano music of the First World War

Mon Dec 03, 2018 at 10:07 am

By Tim Sawyier

Cédric Tiberghien performed Sunday at Symphony Center.

Cédric Tiberghien returned to Orchestra Hall Sunday afternoon as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. Tiberghien’s program painted a compelling portrait of the European musical climate during the First World War in an intelligently curated homage to the centenary of Armistice Day. As in his 2015 local debut, the French pianist’s performance Sunday was unimpeachable, with the only quibbles concerning the program.

Each work on Tiberghien’s program represented a different year of the Great War, which lasted from 1914-1918, and a different country involved in the conflict. He opened with Scriabin’s 1914 Vers la flamme, Op. 72, an atmospheric miniature representative of the composer’s preoccupation with fire and the end of days during his final period. Tiberghien adroitly charted the work’s trajectory from murky depths to dense, smoldering agitation, his playing— here as throughout—unfazed by the knottiest harmonic textures.

The backstory to Frank Bridge’s Three Improvisations for the Left Hand is almost identical to that of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. (The latter was commissioned by the famed pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm during WWI.) The burgeoning British pianist Douglas Fox suffered the exact same injury in 1917, leading Bridge to compose the Three Improvisations in his honor a year later. Tiberghien was again impressive in these short sketches, demonstrating remarkable control at the piano’s softest dynamics.

The Debussy Etudes, Books One and Two, were the centerpiece of Tiberghien’s recital. Written in 1915 in the context of both the war’s early bloodshed and the composer’s battle with colon cancer, the Etudes represent the culmination of Debussy’s oeuvre for the piano and one of the 20th century’s major achievements for the instrument. 

Tiberghien was entirely in sync with the endless ingenuity of these works. Each of the Etudes is based on a cellular idea, either a number of fingers, a single interval, or some aspect of piano technique, and in Tiberghien’s performance these atomic elements were always in relief against Debussy’s florid, finger-twisting textures. In Book One, “For five fingers, after Monsieur Czerny” was flicked off with agile wit, and “For octaves” with stunning facility.

In Book Two, “For chromatic degrees” went with manic energy, and “For repeated notes” with a menacing insistence. The blessing and curse of Debussy’s harmonic innovations is their ability to suspend motion, which can create sublime stasis but in the wrong hands stupefying stagnation. Tiberghien was always safely in the first category, imbuing each Etude with an organic sense of ebb and flow, particularly the wandering “For fourths,” “For opposed sonorities,” and “For composite arpeggios.”

The Etudes were performed in an unconventional order Sunday. Following the Bridge Improvisations, Tiberghien offered the first three Etudes of Book Two, and then proceeded almost without pause in Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes, Op. 33 of 1916, before closing out the first half with the last three Book Two Etudes. 

The cross-pollination and mutual influence of Debussy and Szymanowski are readily apparent, and merging the two composers’ works in this way felt a bit didactic and heavy-handed. The Polish composer’s Etudes are more aphoristic than his more renowned French counterpart’s, and the whole set of twelve lasts less than fifteen minutes. In Tiberghien’s hands the cycle sounded like one episodic unity, the Frenchman expertly pacing the mercurial episodes.

Book One of the Debussy Etudes opened the second half, the remainder of which was devoted to Hindemith’s In a Night…Dreams and Experiences, of 1919 (stretching the Great War’s dates). Again Tiberghien’s playing was impressive from top to bottom, but Hindemith’s Op. 15  was not quite an undiscovered masterpiece. The 25-minute work is in 14 short movements, which are insufficiently characterized, and one can hardly tell when one ends and another begins. “Fantastic duet of two trees outside the window” sounded like “Program music: Cuckoo and owl,” which also sounded like “Foxtrot,” and so on. Ultimately this was  an odd and unsuccessful way to close out a demanding concert, and a number of patrons excused themselves before the work’s end.

With his encore Tiberghien got around to America and the year 1917, with George Gershwin’s Rialto Ripples. Tiberghien ably projected the work’s jazzy idiom, its untroubled jauntiness almost seeming like a denial of the horrors transpiring across the Atlantic.

The Symphony Center Presents Piano Series continues January 27, 2019, with Leif Ove Andsnes performing Schumann’s Three Romances, Book One of Janácek’s On an Overgrown Path, Bartók’s Three Burlesques, and Schumann’s Carnaval. cso.org

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