Personality - by design

Red socks, Versace waistcoats, gold-buttoned tails - le style, as they say in France, est l'homme meme. And this particular homme is one stylish pianist. Edward Seckerson meets Jean-Yves Thibaudet
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The Independent Culture
It's unlikely to be the hands you notice first but the feet. The socks, actually. The elegant young man making his way to the Steinway grand is wearing red socks. He usually does. They've become something of a trademark, a porte-bonheur. As have the Gianni Versace waistcoats and sleek, gold-buttoned tails. He has an aristocratic air, a touch of Versailles about him. But it's a friendly, modern face - aquiline nose, blond, immaculately coiffed hair - that gratefully acknowledges the applause. "People need to know who you are," says Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Meaning that, in these days of corporate image-making, you're never quite sure. But make no mistake, this is Thibaudet - the image, the wardrobe, the presentation. And catwalk or concert platform, only one thing matters as he takes his seat at the keyboard. Now you notice his hands.

So how style-conscious is the playing? Very. But not style-conscious as in narcissistic, superficial, precious. There is a tendency to characterise the French school of playing thus, which irritates Thibaudet no end and may have something to do with his reluctance to be labelled a "French pianist". He's no thoroughbred in that respect, anyway, his mother being German (from Hamburg), his father French. But his principal studies did take place in Paris, his first teacher was Lucille Descaves, former assistant of Marguerite Long and a student of both Faure and Ravel, and he does feel part of that tradition. Descaves played the Ravel G major Concerto under the composer's own direction and was the proud possessor of his precisely annotated scores. So when Thibaudet came to study this music, the answers to all his questions - the key to unlocking its myriad colours - were there in black and white. The slow movement of the concerto was to be played "as simply as possible - a pure, singing line". No rubato, "no butter in the sauce", as Poulenc might have had it (he, of course, liked plenty of butter in his sauce). And it was this clarity and transparency, this coolness of expression that came to typify the French sound. It's all in the pedalling, says Thibaudet. "Ravel was the most classical of French composers, much more restrained emotionally than, say, Poulenc, who for me is so typically Parisian - an extravagant, decadent personality. Ravel was meticulous about detail; he hated pianists who obscured that detail by slamming down their foot. Debussy mixed his colours and his harmonies more - in that sense he was much more of an impressionist - but clarity is still the major factor. Not dry, just clear." Limpid is a good word. Thibaudet's Decca recording of Ravel's solo piano music is limpid. So, too, his Debussy.

It's this relating of sound to style, and vice versa, that is at the heart of all great pianism. "I know that the process is working when I'm no longer conscious of it working," says Thibaudet. "Brahms, for instance, has its own sound - a deep, warm, resonant, meaty sound. When you play Brahms, you feel your way much more deeply into the keys. With Ravel, you can ride the surface of the keys. A forte in Ravel is quite different from a forte in Brahms. Even `Scarbo' [the most fiendishly virtuosic movement in all Ravel] is never really full-on. It plays all kinds of tricks on you. It comes and goes..."

Rather like the so-called "golden age" of pianism. Did we really see its passing with the likes of Rubinstein, Horowitz and Cherkassky? Whatever happened to the great individualists? Or are we simply succumbing to nostalgia here? Thibaudet thinks not. Rubinstein was for him "the complete artist", a man whose joie de vivre could be felt in every aspect of his playing. "He was typical of a whole generation where music-making was personal. Whether you liked them or not, each of these players had a strong identity of their own. I can put on a record, and after only a couple of bars I can tell you who it is: they had a sound, these players, their sound. How many pianists can you say that of today?

"You see, we live in a competitive age. Conservatoires train their students to win competitions, and in order to win competitions you can't be too personal. Because, in that situation, one judge will love you and another will very likely hate you. And that's a no-win situation. So what we're really talking about here - if we're not very careful - is a kind of `standardisation', a whole generation of brilliant musical robots."

One's mind goes back to the 1980 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, when Martha Argerich stormed off the jury after Ivo Pogorelich failed to make the final rounds. Maybe she had glimpsed the future and didn't like what she saw?

Maybe. Even so, young musicians like Thibaudet are determined to buck the trends. Take recording. It's time, he believes (and he assures me that he is not alone), to make only those recordings where there is a strong creative imperative (or catalogue need: the Khachaturian and Lowell Lieberman concertos are pending, for instance, and he'd like to record the Barber, the perfect coupling for the concerto Gian Carlo Menotti has promised to write for him). He wants to make "interesting" not "perfect" records. Even if there was such a thing as perfection (for "perfect" read "perfunctory"), the day an artist stops seeking answers to the big questions, questions he can never know all the answers to, then it's time to hang up the tails.

The night before our interview, Thibaudet and one of his regular chamber music partners, the violinist Joshua Bell, were at New York's Carnegie Hall rounding off a short US tour. And it was precisely the kind of "musical evolution" that truly collaborative musicians like this thrive on. "Every night you learn something about the pieces you play. You try something different, you risk something new. Something in your attitude shifts, you come at the music from a slightly different perspective. It should be the same with records. You make the record on Tuesday. By Wednesday it is already different."

And by Thursday - the record producer's nightmare.

But there speaks the live performer. Thibaudet enjoys making records - which he fancifully likens to "playing for friends" - but public performances bring out the showman in him. He loves an audience, a sense of occasion - he loves (let's not hedge here) the limelight. Ask him who he'd choose for his imaginary one-to-one and I'll wager it would be Franz Liszt. He hasn't yet taken to leaving his gloves on the piano for the ladies (and gentlemen) to fight over, but I imagine he's working on it. Audiences at the Met in New York may have witnessed something of a dry run last season when he swept on stage in Act 2 of Giordano's Fedora in the guise of the "celebrated Polish pianist Boleslao Lazinski". Judging from the notices he received, Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo should count their lucky stars he wasn't singing.

He has a "terrible voice", he adds reassuringly, but adores opera and reveres singers. "Ten years in any conservatory in the world won't teach you what you can learn from preparing a single recital programme with singers like Brigitte Fassbaender or Cecilia Bartoli. We pianists are forever trying to make an essentially percussive instrument sing. It's an illusion at best, but by listening and playing for singers, you can get closer than you ever imagined." And because he is as good as his word, he's including a singer - the mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager - in his trio of Wigmore Hall concerts this month. The cellist Truls Mork joins him for the third concert - on the surface of it, a glorious mismatch of personalities, the one shy and retiring, the other flamboyant. But they connect. And that's the point. Music is an interactive business. The word "accompanist" (don't even breathe it to Thibaudet) is obsolete - and that's official.

And while we're about it, hasn't "crossover" had its day, too? Thibaudet has a new album in the shops - the music of jazz pianist, Bill Evans - but trust me, he hasn't "crossed over" in his life. "All music is related. All of it comes from essentially the same place. Look at Ravel and Gershwin. I've always loved jazz piano - Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans, the most refined, the most `classical' of them all. From time to time I've fooled around with jazz musician friends of mine in New York. It's great, it's really liberating musically. So when one of the Decca executives came to me and said, `You know, I was listening to your Ravel recording the other night, and guess what it reminded me of', I knew. It's unbelievable how close some of Bill Evans's chords are to Ravel and Debussy."

So the idea for the album was born. Thibaudet and his colleagues chose the material, made the arrangements, the basic text serving as a "departure point" for each track. "The idea," says Thibaudet, "was not at all to imitate Bill Evans, but to find my own way to his pieces." The album's called Conversations with Bill Evans - because that's just what it is. "I'm not a jazz pianist and I never will be. But, you know, it's amazing how this kind of work frees up your classical performances. Making this album really sharpened my perception of rhythm, in particular, because you can do whatever you want with rubato in this music, but that rhythmic heartbeat cannot move."

So not crossover, but cross-fertilisation. Thibaudet can't get enough of it. "What we need now is more and more interaction between the arts, just as they had in Paris at the time of Diaghilev."

To that end, he might well make music for some future Versace fashion show, just as next year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there are plans for him to lend his pianistic impressionism to a retrospective of Monet's work. Heaven forbid he should make an exhibition of himself for less.

Thibaudet at the Wigmore Hall: solo recital (Debussy, Chopin) 7.30 Tuesday; with Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano (lieder by Strauss, Berg, Wolf, Gustav & Alma Mahler, Korngold) 7pm Sunday 13 April; with Truls Mork, cello (Brahms, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov) 7.30 Tuesday 15 April. Booking: 0171-935 2141

`Conversations with Bill Evans' is on the Decca label (CD 455 512-2)