Of the top pianists touring the world playing recitals and concertos, Jean-Yves Thibaudet achieves something that is increasingly elusive in contemporary classical music. Instead of standard-issue mastery of the keyboard-no small accomplishment, however lacking in individuality it may be-he plays with distinctive sound and style. His return engagement last weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was brilliant.
Saint-Saens' enormously demanding Piano Concerto No. 5, part of Thibaudet's recently recorded repertory, is not often encountered. This unsentimental, fully expressive and sharply drawn performance was without a hint of virtuoso self-indulgence. In other words, it was everything I have learned to expect from this pianist. Under this artist's hands the new MSO Steinway that debuted this season was a parade of clearly defined and contrasting colors, more than I thought possible. I admired the powerful, steely tone he so sparingly used, edgy and intense without being driven or overplayed. Soft playing came in various, compelling hues. Thibaudet's rather dry, Gallic sense of scalpel-etched phrasing makes romantic music crackle with energy. He is a master at sparse and strategic pedaling, enhancing the tone as well as clarifying his musical intentions.
The audience response to this dazzling pianist on Friday night was not enough to draw an encore. It was a standard-issue standing ovation given every concert, but the applause ended fairly soon. (Unusual, since audience response here is almost always overstated.) This left me wondering at how Thibaudet's French sophistication, high sense of style and lack of romantic angst plays in a city like Milwaukee.
Guest conductor Pietari Inkinen's Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky had good energy and occasional drama. The MSO strings sounded lush in the doubled melody sections. Ted Soluri contributed lovely, lyrical bassoon solos in the second movement. Messiaen's sensual, ethereal and mesmerizing The Forgotten Offerings began the concert.