Throughout the 2018-19 season, the Symphony Center Presents and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I with a series of concerts, exhibits and other offerings.
No program more directly relates to this theme than SCP Piano recital Dec. 2 by Cédric Tiberghien. Premiered Nov. 10 in London’s Wigmore Hall, the program features five works written from 1914 through 1918, the duration of the so-called Great War. “Cédric Tiberghien created something both arresting and significant,” wrote music critic Michael Church in London’s Independent. “Choosing works composed in each year of the conflict, he built up a picture of piano music at this pivotal moment in its development, and also indicated something of the war’s human consequences.”
Tiberghien, 43, winner of the grand prize in 1998 at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in France, made his Symphony Center debut in May 2015 as part of the Chicago Symphony’s French music festival, “Reveries and Passions.” Known as an inquisitive, versatile pianist with a broad repertoire, he recently recorded a three-volume set of the solo piano works of 20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
In an interview with Sounds and Stories, Tiberghien spoke about the inspiration for his World War I program and his repertoire choices:
Did you design this program specifically for Chicago or have you been performing it elsewhere as well? If you have performed it elsewhere, where did you debut it?
This program was built after an invitation from Wigmore [Hall] in London. They wanted to celebrate the Armistice Day in a special way. I performed it on Nov. 10, and my Chicago performance is the second one. I will play it as well in Middlebury, Vt. Wigmore Hall is the concert hall where I have performed the most [over 40 times]. Playing there is always special. It gives me a unique inspiration, making me play better than anywhere else. Definitely my musical “home.”
What interested you in doing a program connected to World War I and the centennial of the Armistice?
I always loved this fertile period, from the turn of the century up to the devastating shock of the war. There was a direction, an impulse, a general inspiration that I feel was broken by the catastrophe. I’ve played a lot of music written between 1900 and 1950, and I sometimes feel very depressed to see that certain conservative audiences are still not ready and curious for it. I feel it as a mission to bring a little less known repertoire to listeners, and I simply adore playing this repertoire!
How did you go about choosing this repertoire? What drew you to these works?
That was a very demanding challenge, and it took a lot of time and energy. I wanted works from different countries involved in the war and works written in each year of the war as well. I browsed a wide repertoire, listening to and playing a lot pieces I didn’t know, as I absolutely wanted to include a bit of new repertoire. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to keep Debussy’s 12 Études, a piece I’ve been working on since I was 20. Although I studied all of them, and performed most of them separately, I played the whole work only recently. It is the most advanced, inspired, revolutionary work for piano at the time.
Then, a German work was needed, and this took more time. But when I started reading In einer Nacht (In One Night) by [Paul] Hindemith, it was instantly clear it was the piece. The connections with Debussy and the progression in the work were terrific. And it’s very little played; it definitely deserves more recognition.
Playing this program in the United Kingdom, I thought it would be nice to have a British work, which led to Frank Bridge. I have always adored [Karol] Szymanowski and performed his music very often and recorded it, so it was for me natural to add his beautiful — and so demanding! — Études. And finally, it has for long been a dream to perform Vers la flame (Toward the Flame) by [Alexander] Scriabin, after hearing a recording by [Vladimir] Horowitz, actually.
Then the order of the program took some more time to find its balance. I love the idea of starting with a work that was composed in 1914, before the big explosion, a work called Toward the Flame, which can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. There are so many connections among the works and I hope it will all make sense to the audience!”
Most of these works do not directly address the war. That said, do you think they were some way affected by the war or have something to say about the time they were composed?
I cannot speak for the composers, but I think they were all affected by this horrible time. I have the feeling it generally was a “break” in their evolution, a moment in which you needed to find a new language, a new way to express things. Debussy, for example, was very much affected by the war and couldn’t compose for a while.
Among those with the most direct connection to the war is the Frank Bridge piece, which he wrote for Douglas Fox, an aspiring pianist who lost his right hand in combat. What is it like to play this piece for one hand?
I’ve played a few works for the left hand only (recently the Ravel Concerto [for the Left Hand] with the Berlin Philharmonic), and I always found it natural – the main challenge being to find your body’s balance. You have a complete keyboard for only one hand, meaning your arm becomes more mobile, and it can be very disturbing at the beginning. But at the end, it doesn’t change anything. I find it very moving to play, to imagine those pianists who were wounded and could keep playing the piano in that way.”
You are a fan of Szymanowski, having recorded his solo piano works in 2014, including the rarely heard Etudes on this program. What draws you to these works?
A friend of mine played me a recording of the Symphony No. 4, which has a major piano part. I was truly blown away by its beauty and started exploring his extraordinary musical world. First playing and recording his music for violin and piano [with Alina Ibragimova], then exploring his piano music, and at last performing the symphony, which is a pure gem. I love the extreme delicacy of his writing, the eroticism of his harmonies and textures, the orchestral vision he has in his piano writing.
Why did In einer Nacht seem like the right piece to close the program?
It was composed at the end of the war, and starts in the darkness (which can be seen as the war’s darkness) and then wakes up gradually and goes into something which is very new — the craziness of the Années Folles [the 1920s] and its dances. Hindemith loved all this “not serious” music, and In einer Nacht ends with a hectic foxtrot, followed by a caricature of “old times” — highly scholastic fugues. He sort of laughs at it, leaving the war and the past behind, and heading to a happier future! That’s a personal vision, but it tells why it should be at the end of this war program.