Clean-limbed, shining-eyed Cedric Tiberghien, 35, still comes across like the miraculous child he was when he won the Paris Conservatoire’s Premier Prix at seventeen, and his approach to the piano still has a vernal innocence.
For him it’s a paint-box with which he creates landscapes of Oriental delicacy: he has more shades of pianissimo up his sleeve than any other pianist currently on the circuit.
But as he launched into Chopin’s first Scherzo one felt oddly ill at ease. The upward-sweeping gusts of notes were so fast they became a blur: this was one of those paradoxical moments when they would have actually sounded faster if they’d been played slower, so that one could have savoured the intricate detail. On the other hand, the work’s lyrical sections were a delight, as were the three Chopin Mazurkas which followed. Then came Chopin’s first Ballade, sweetly eloquent in its opening stages, but strikingly lacking in heft when it needed to raise the rafters: Tiberghien’s fingers seemed to skitter across the keys, rather than digging into them. After two more Chopin mazurkas, followed by his majestic second Scherzo, things became clear. Tiberghien’s brand of virtuosity lies in a parade of effects, rather than in the creation of pieces of architecture: he’s essentially a miniaturist, albeit a poetic one.
But his Chopin celebration had an interesting subtext in that its second half was largely devoted to mazurkas by two of that composer’s Polish successors, plus a rogue Russian. Scriabin’s attempts at the genre served to highlight the virtues of Chopin’s: his mazurkas seemed pallid and sprawling when set alongside the pungent tautness of his exemplar. Alexander Tansman - like Chopin born in Poland and dying in Paris - went faithfully through the motions, and followed Chopin’s rhythms and modal patterns, but his pieces ended up sounding more like Poulenc. The success among these latter-day mazurkists was Karol Szymanowski, a Polish nationalist who carried the torch for his great compatriot. His attempts worked because they had a charm and originality of their own.
After which, it was a relief to get back to the voice of the master, but once more with reservations. Tiberghien’s performance of the Opus 59 Mazurkas had a brittle, look-at-me cleverness, and in his hands the Polonaise-Fantaisie never emerged as the magnificent edifice it is. Chopin should sing from the heart, but on this occasion he never did.