Pianist Tiberghien makes an impression in Boston recital debut

February 20, 2014 at 6:34 pm

By David Wright

Cedric Tiburghien made his Boston recital debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

The piano recital by Cédric Tiberghien Wednesday night at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall featured two clowns, two storms, three famous fictional characters, two country scenes, three landscapes with bells, two Spanish serenades, two pastoral scenes, and at least four bodies of water.

It was all in a day’s work for a program devoted to pre-Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and the thing itself, represented respectively by Franz Liszt, Karol Szymanowski, and Maurice Ravel.

The Paris-trained, award-winning pianist, in a Boston recital debut presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, brought intelligence, sensitivity, and a commanding technique to this evocative repertoire.  What he didn’t bring on Wednesday night was much variety of tone color.

The sounds Tiberghien coaxed from the instrument are best described as ranging from very soft to very loud.  To hear Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (“First year: Switzerland”), Szymanowski’s Masques and Ravel’s Miroirs played this way was like looking at a black-and-white reproduction of a Monet painting—the composition is great, but something’s missing.

The pianist was a resourceful and frequent user of the piano’s left pedal, the una corda, which produces a more distant, muffled tone than the piano in full voice.  Using it in conjunction with the damper pedal, he was able to accomplish some color effects with his feet that were apparently beyond his fingers’ ability.

Liszt’s collection of impressions from his Swiss travels is especially in need of sonic imagination, since its nine pieces are not of equal interest.  A few, such as “Au bord d’une source” and “Vallée d’Obermann,” are justly famous and recital staples, while others such as “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell” and “Eclogue” are fragmentary, lightweight, or both.

For a performance of the whole set to succeed, these latter pieces need to come off as vivid little interludes between the masterpieces.  They didn’t on Wednesday night, and one’s attention wandered.

So, for example, while the watery legato and sparkling droplets of “Au bord d’une source” (By a spring) gave delight throughout the piece, one quickly got the point of “Orage” (Storm), with its Lisztian riot of octaves, tremolos, and dissonances, and then there was nothing to do but wait for the pianist to complete his (quite astounding) feats of stamina and agility.  Perhaps it’s churlish to ask for meaning too, or even gauging the thunderbolts a little better, but these things would have helped sustain interest.

What certainly didn’t help was that during the Liszt, which constituted the program’s first half, the piano was emitting the kind of acidic, slightly wavery tone that indicates an instrument not quite in tune.  A visit from the tuner during intermission took care of that, and the Szymanowski and Ravel works benefited accordingly.

Tiberghien too seemed to warm up to the second half a bit.  Loud, fast octaves were still just loud, fast octaves, no matter who the composer or what the context, and a certain here-they-come-again feeling set in whenever the crescendos began, but the Petrushka-influenced music of Szymanowski seemed to suit this pianist’s hard forte tone and above-the-keys attack, and in the Ravel he achieved a layering of sound that gave depth to several of the movements.

Through it all, Tiberghien’s care and commitment to the music were never in doubt, and there were many moments when a chord voicing or a melodic line overcame the color limitations and spoke eloquently to the listener’s ear.  The programming of these three works together—with their many correspondences (enumerated above) and their piano styles that shed light on each other—was an inspired idea, even if it lacked something in the execution.

The audience, having fought its way to this recital through yet another icebound night in a horrible winter, was rewarded with two Debussy preludes as encores: Fireworks and The Engulfed Cathedral, played with maximum brilliance and murkiness, respectively.

The next music presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston is Leonidas Kavakos, violin, and Enrico Pace, piano, in an all-Beethoven program, 3 p.m. Sunday.  celebrityseries.org; (617) 482-6661.

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