Thibaudet's connection to Ravel runs decades deep

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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Jean-Yves Thibaudet is often typecast as a “French pianist.’’ The term denotes not only geographical origin - he is a native of Lyon - but an ensuing repertoire specialty as well. Never mind that he plays a wide array of music, including brilliant performances and recordings of Liszt, Gershwin, and Mendelssohn, among others. The stereotype is “this French thing that I have been battling since I was a baby,’’ the pianist said with a laugh recently.

When Thibaudet appears at Tanglewood this week, he will play nothing but Ravel - the French composer’s entire corpus of piano music. First the solo music, spread over two evenings at Ozawa Hall (July 20 and 21); then both of the piano concertos, part of an all-Ravel Boston Symphony Orchestra concert on July 24, with Emmanuel Krivine conducting.

“If there’s one composer in all that’s special to my heart and always will be, it’s really Ravel,’’ Thibaudet said.

The pianist’s connection to the French composer goes back to his early years at the instrument and runs through his career. But the plan to play Ravel’s complete piano repertoire is a first of sorts, he said during a phone conversation in the midst of a European tour. He mentioned having played all the solo music in back-to-back concerts a few times over the years, and the two concertos together on several concerts. “But I’ve never done the entire thing, the complete piano works and the two concerti in the same week in the same place,’’ he said. “That’s pretty exciting - I’m excited myself.’’

Tony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator, said that Thibaudet’s mini-residency this week fits into a series of programs devoted to a single composer that has unfolded at Ozawa Hall over the last several seasons. And in thinking about the Ravel, “who better to do it all than Jean-Yves,’’ Fogg said. “He’s someone that we all love to have around, such a wonderful personality and such a generous artist. And his pedigree in this repertoire is impeccable.’’

Thibaudet began playing Ravel early and could play all the solo piano music - including technically demanding works like “Gaspard de la Nuit’’ - by the age of 15. He won a local competition when he was 11; the prize was a concert with a Paris orchestra. His teacher told him he should play Mozart; he insisted on Ravel’s Concerto in G major, an ebullient work whose intricate fingerwork trips up even experienced musicians.

“And we went back and forth, back and forth,’’ he recalled. Finally his teacher relented, telling the youngster that he should learn the concerto’s entire first movement for next week’s lesson. If it passed muster, he could play the whole thing in the concert. “And I did it, and she let me play it.’’

The teacher is an important part of the story. She was Lucette Descaves, a student of Ravel’s who had played all his solo music for him. A hand injury forced her to cut short her career as a soloist, and she subsequently became a legendary pedagogue. Thibaudet spoke of Descaves with a sense of reverence; studying with her, he explained, was almost like being in the composer’s presence.

“She had what for me was a treasure - a cupboard in her studio that she would open, and she had all these fabulous scores in there,’’ he said. “And the Ravel scores had notes that were written by Ravel, in his handwriting. I remember it was in blue. It was all the things he had written in her score while she was playing for him. She would speak to you about it like . . . you were almost expecting that the door would open and Ravel would come in the room.’’

Descaves made Thibaudet memorize the scores of the orchestral versions Ravel made of many of his piano works. And she was adamant about the sound Ravel wanted from the piano. “Ravel didn’t like the pedal and didn’t like people putting the pedal down and leaving it for bars and bars,’’ Thibaudet said.

That’s why Thibaudet’s performances - especially the solo works on a two-CD set from 1991 - are unusually dry and precise. Listen to the harp-like runs in “Alborada del Gracioso’’ from the suite “Miroirs.’’ Where other pianists produce a dreamy wash of sound, Thibaudet makes every note stand out in crisp relief.

“That’s exactly what it should be,’’ he said, with conviction. The approach also brings out what Thibaudet sees as the restrained, classical element of Ravel’s music. “To me he is the absolute link with Couperin and Rameau, and not at all a Romantic.’’

There was one work that Thibaudet resisted adding to his repertoire - the Concerto for the Left Hand. The piece was written for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, who had lost his right arm during World War I. Perhaps because of the circumstances of its composition, the concerto has a darkness - Thibaudet referred to its “evil spirit’’ - unlike anything else by Ravel.

The gloominess put Thibaudet off the piece, and he didn’t play it until the 1990s. Learning it took a long time, as he hadn’t realized how technically difficult the piece is.

“I realized that I couldn’t practice too long on it, because I was just destroying my arm and my hand,’’ he said. “I would do a few pages and then I would have to stop. And I realized I was building new muscle strength. It took me quite a while to do it and to be comfortable and to be able to practice enough hours that I could learn the piece.’’ Even now, the concerto’s physical demands mean that he needs at least five days to prepare for a performance, whereas any other piece he can play with a day or two’s notice.

Having lived with this music for decades - Thibaudet will turn 50 this year - he is also thinking about how to pass along the wisdom he received from Descaves - in effect, how to keep that heritage alive. While he no longer teaches regularly, he never turns down an opportunity to do a master class. “It’s wonderful to teach - it gives you a lot back and you learn a lot yourself,’’ he said. “I always keep that in mind, so that I don’t lose all those things that I’ve learned from her and from my teachers.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail .com.