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Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Jean Yves Thibaudet standing in front of a grey background with a spotlight forming a light circle behind him

Jean-Yves Thibaudet makes a stylish return to the Barbican in music from his native France; in his hands, Debussy’s Préludes transcend the keyboard, conjuring a world of beauty, musical originality and irresistible characterisation.

‘There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.’ So Claude Debussy famously told his long-suffering composition teacher. But that gives little idea of the meticulousness with which he composed, of the effort that went into creating music that sounds so effortless. For Debussy, the piano was all about illusion – he wanted pianists to imagine they were playing an instrument with no hammers. If his Préludes follow in the line of Chopin (a composer he revered), they take the genre in a strikingly new direction. The placing of the evocative titles at the end of each piece is intentional, supposedly to avoid over-influencing the interpretation. But once you know the title and its inspiration, it’s difficult to imagine the piece could be about anything else.

The 24 pieces are arranged into two books, dating from 1909 and 1911–13 respectively. Some have become so famous that they have a flourishing life outside the cycle, but when heard as a sequence, as we do tonight, they pull us all the more powerfully into Debussy’s entrancing world.

In the First Book he travels far, not just geographically and historically but also intermingling high and low art. The opening two pieces, ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ and ‘Voiles’, draw us in with their mystery, the first alluding to Ancient Greece, the second conjuring the sound-world of the East. For ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ Debussy draws inspiration from the 18th-century poet Charles-Simon Favart, conjuring a landscape where you can almost hear the wind as it intensifies. The evocative title of ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ is Baudelaire’s, Debussy capturing to perfection the hazy and slightly claustrophobic air of the original poem. ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’ is an explosive evocation of the kind of dazzling light peculiar to the Mediterranean, complete with the introduction of a sultry pseudo-Neapolitan folksong – Debussy mingling his own music with fake vernacular. Just as abruptly the temperature plummets, with the stuttering ‘Des pas sur la neige’, the torpor replaced with frenetic energy in the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’, in which Debussy gives Liszt a run for his money in terms of sheer virtuosity.

Up until this point, the Préludes have been unpeopled, but then comes the famous ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, Debussy conjuring a rather more innocent portrait than the erotically charged original poem. To Spain next (a country that held an enduring fascination for the composer, even though his experience of it was limited to a few hours spent over the border) for ‘La sérénade interrompue’, with its heady evocation of strummed guitar. We then plunge into the depths for the awe-inspiring ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, based on a Breton legend of the cathedral in the drowned city of Ys, which could occasionally be glimpsed, rising out of the sea through the mists. From textural richness to the sinewy, darting lines of ‘Le danse de Puck’, a delightful sketch of the Shakespearean character whose unpredictability is magically conjured. We end Book 1 in Eastbourne: while the composer was staying there, completing his tone-poem La mer, he encountered a group of musicians parading through the streets, which he captures in ‘Minstrels’, a heady mix of the commonplace and the artful.

By contrast with the travels of the First Book, the Second is more inward-looking. Like Book 1, the first two pieces are misty, ungraspable, from the amorphous swirling of ‘Brouillards’ to the disquieting ‘Feuilles mortes’. We are flung into a more upbeat mood with ‘La puerta del vino’, its inspiration a postcard of the Moorish gate in Granada’s Alhambra. A visual prompt of a very different kind is behind ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’: a delicate, if faintly sinister Arthur Rackham illustration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. ‘Bruyères’ reminds us irresistibly of the flaxen-haired girl of Book 1, before the buffoonery of ‘General Lavine’, a portrait said to have been inspired by the American clown Ed Lavine, whose talents included playing the piano with his toes.

The sensuously beautiful ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ was inspired by a newspaper article describing the 1911 durbar at which George V was crowned Emperor of India, an occasion abounding in pomp, ceremony and outfits so lavish that the king complained the bejewelled crown made his head ache! From emperors to water-sprites, and ‘Ondine’, a figure given a certain malice in Debussy’s vision.

Debussy was a great Anglophile, but that didn’t stop him poking fun, which he does with great aplomb in ‘Hommage à S Pickwick Esq, PPMPC’, complete with its quotation of God Save the King. The ‘PPMPC’, meanwhile, are a dig at the British tradition of appending letters after a person’s name, and stand for ‘Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club’. More time travels in ‘Canope’, as we visit the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus, which was famed for its funerary jars, the music aptly austere. From stillness to manic energy in ‘Tierces alternées’, which harks back not only to moto perpetuo pieces from Debussy’s Pour le Piano and Estampes, but further back to the illustrious claveçinistes of centuries past, notably François Couperin and Rameau. The Préludes end with a bang, with ‘Feux d’artifice’ imagining the spectacular fireworks of Paris’s 14 July celebrations, complete with snatches of the Marseillaise.

© Harriet Smith

Programme and performers

Claude Debussy Préludes
Book 1
1. Danseuses de Delphes
2. Voiles
3. Le vent dans la plaine
4. ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’
5. Les collines d’Anacapri
6. Des pas sur la neige
7. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest
8. La fille aux cheveux de lin
9. La sérénade interrompue
10. La cathédrale engloutie
11. La danse de Puck
12. Minstrels

Book 2
1. Brouillards
2. Feuilles mortes
3. La puerta del vino
4. Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses
5. Bruyères
6. ‘General Lavine’ – excentric
7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
8. Ondine
9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq, PPMPC
10. Canope
11. Les tierces alternées
12. Feux d’artifice

Jean-Yves Thibaudet piano

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Jean-Yves Thibaudet has earned a reputation as one of the world’s finest pianists. He is especially known for his diverse interests beyond the classical world; in addition to his many forays into jazz and opera, he has forged friendships around the globe, leading to fruitful collaborations in film, fashion and visual art. He has appeared on more than 70 albums and six soundtracks. Education is a particular interest and he is the first-ever Artist-in-Residence at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, which awards several scholarships in his name.

He began this season with a tour of Europe with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Gershwin’s Concerto and Saint- Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 5, subsequently playing the Gershwin with the Toronto and Baltimore Symphony orchestras and the Saint-Saëns with the Chicago, North Carolina and Pittsburgh Symphony orchestras.

Other highlights include performing and recording Khachaturian’s concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel; Ravel’s Concerto in G with the Bern, Houston, New World and San Diego Symphony orchestras and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; Messiaen’s Turangalîla- Symphonie with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; and Debussy’s Fantaisie and Scriabin’s Prometheus with Esa-Pekka Salonen.

He also tours the US with longtime collaborators Gautier Capuçon and Lisa Batiashvili, playing works by Haydn, Ravel, and Mendelssohn; continues his multi-season focus on Debussy’s Préludes, accompanied by a reissue of his seminal 1996 recording of the Préludes on limited-edition vinyl; and, together with Michael Feinstein, presents the programme Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?, featuring works by Gershwin, Rodgers and others in new arrangements for piano, voice and orchestra.

He records exclusively for Decca; his extensive catalogue has received two Grammy nominations, two ECHO Awards, the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Diapason d’Or, Choc du Monde de la Musique, Edison Prize, and Gramophone awards. His most recent solo album, 2021’s Carte Blanche, features a collection of deeply personal solo piano pieces never before recorded by the pianist.

He has also had an impact on the worlds of fashion, film and philanthropy. He was soloist in Aaron Zigman’s score for Wakefield; in Dario Marianelli’s award-winning scores for the films Atonement (which won an Oscar for Best Original Score) and Pride and Prejudice; and on Alexandre Desplat’s soundtracks for the 2012 film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. His concert wardrobe is designed by Dame Vivienne Westwood.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet was born in Lyon, where he began his piano studies at the age of 5. At 12 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Aldo Ciccolini and Lucette Descaves. Among his numerous commendations is the Victoire d’Honneur – a lifetime career achievement award and the highest honour given by France’s Victoires de la Musique; in 2010 the Hollywood Bowl inducted him into its Hall of Fame; two years later he was awarded the title Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2012. He is co-artistic advisor, with Gautier Capuçon, of the Festival Musique and Vin au Clos Vougeot.

Audience in the hall

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