Pianists from all countries are typically linked with the music of their homeland. But such associations are especially strong when it comes to French keyboardists, who are sometimes unfairly pigeonholed as strictly interpreters of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel or Erik Satie.
Cédric Tiberghien and Alexandre Tharaud, who will be making their Chicago debuts on May 3 and May 10 respectively as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, have long fought such stereotypes by insisting on playing a broad range of music. Tiberghien, for example, is in the midst recording a three-volume set of the keyboard works of 20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and Tharaud is a fan of such Baroque composers as J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
After winning the grand prize in 1998 at the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in France, Tiberghien largely steered clear of French repertoire for four or five years. “Especially in France, there is a risk of being put into a little square, where people expect you to play Debussy, for example,” said Tiberghien, who will turn 40 on May 5. “They ask you play to Debussy, and you play Debussy, and then you’re stuck. I know very good artists who had to fight their whole life just to say, ‘You know, I can play other things.’ ”
Growing up, he was a fan of such famed historical pianists as Emil Gilels, Arthur Rubinstein and Artur Schnabel, wearing out their records from listening to them so often. “I think what I liked,” he said, “was always strong interpretations — never something in between. I wanted excesses. When you listen to Rubinstein playing the Chopin Polonaises, there is excess and I loved this. And when you have Gilels playing with the tone he had, which was really different. It was a not very nice, lovely tone. It was gold. It was extraordinary. It was, in a way, positively disturbing, and that’s something that I liked very much. Today, when I listen to music, I want to be, I wouldn’t say disturbed, but I want to be surprised.”
Missing from Tiberghien’s list of musical heroes is the name of a French pianist, and he admits that while he respects such revered soloists as Alfred Cortot and Marguerite Long, their playing and the French school at large has never spoken to him. “It’s interesting,” he said, “but it’s not what I’m looking for. I’m not against my country, of course, but it has its own limits and you can feel the limits. The elegance, the lightness and the clarity, this is something wonderful, but sometimes I expect a little bit more.”
At the same time, Tharaud observes that a performer does not have to be French to have a strong affinity for the country’s music. “You can be American or Japanese, and you can play French music very well,” he said. “And I can be French, and I can play Chopin or Gershwin. It depends on the feeling.”
In a similar way, he performs Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”) but does not play the composer’s piano concerto or keyboard sonatas. He also performs a great deal of Ravel and little Debussy. “I have a good feeling with some pieces, but sometimes I think I’m not very good for another piece,” said Tharaud, who’s 46. “It depends on the feeling and it depends on the time in your life. Maybe in 10 years, I will be playing better Debussy than Ravel.”
Both performers have recorded extensively, with no shortage of French albums. Tharaud’s recent discography, for example, includes a 2009 Satie release titled “Avant-dernière pensées” and a 2012 album dedicated to a celebrated 1920s Parisian cabaret, Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), which was attended by such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Jean Genet, Man Ray and Georges Simenon. “I love this time in Paris,” Tharaud said. “It was just after the First World War, and a lot of French musicians had discovered jazz and American music. So they arranged this music, and it’s really interesting.” Included on the recording are such guest artists as Juliette, a French popular singer, and French soprano Natalie Dessay.
The two pianists live in Paris and both were trained in France, so they know well the French classical musical scene, which Tiberghien believes has lagged in vibrancy and invention in recent decades. “Coming from England especially or even in America, where I really love working,” he said, “I always have the feeling that in those countries you have infinite possibilities. You always have the feeling that you can do it. And this is a feeling that I miss sometimes in France. Maybe it’s a prejudice. I don’t say it’s the truth. It’s a feeling that it takes more energy to make a project work.”
At the same time, he said, French presenters, seemingly fearful of alienating longtime audiences, are reluctant to take risks on younger, lesser-known performers or more daring repertoire. “I get the point,” Tiberghien said, “but the thing is that the promoters have to educate a little bit the audiences. I know some who are really wonderful, but generally I just have the feeling of something a little bit cold compared to America, where I feel when I’m playing there that everything is possible. There is such positive energy that you want to do better things, more things. You want to innovate, and this I never feel in France.”
Tharaud has a more upbeat take. He notes that nearly every town in France of any significant size presents a summer classical music festival, and, as in Germany and Japan, classical CDs still sell well. In addition, he said, classical concerts continue to draw sizable crowds. “So it’s not bad,” he said.
The two pianists’ recitals will be part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Reveries and Passions, a French music festival that runs May 3-24 and includes three orchestral programs with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and a series of related events. To accommodate the Gallic theme, the performers will break from their usual practice and present all-French programs, or in the case of Tiberghien, a virtually all-French program.
Tiberghien’s most recent recording is a collection of solo keyboard works by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), a Polish composer who later in his career was strongly influenced by the airy, delicate textures of Debussy and Ravel. From that 2104 release, the pianist will perform Masques (“Masks”), Op. 34, a half-hour group of three works written in 1915-16, as part of his May 3 recital.
He first encountered Szymanowski’s music six years ago while recording an album of the composer’s music for violin and piano and immediately fell in love with it. “His world is absolutely extraordinary,” Tiberghien said. “It’s like discovering a new language or a new country where you’ve never been. It takes a bit of time to get used to it.”
The rest of the program will be devoted to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and a selection of works by Debussy, including D’un cahier d’esquisses and L’isle joyeuse. “It’s a repertoire that I truly, deeply love,” Tiberghien said, “because there is delicacy, of course, and so much richness, especially in the harmonies. I just melt when I hear all those harmonies. My sensitivity was completely built on harmonic bases. I was never really interested in rhythm or melodies. Just harmonies completely moved me, and with Debussy, Ravel and, of course, Szymanowski , the harmonies are so complex and so rich, there are so many colors. I really love it, actually.”
Thauraud’s May 10 program opens with two Baroque works: François Couperin’s Seven Pieces and movements from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A. It continues with Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées and Gnossiennes, Nos. 1, 3 and 4, and Ravel’s Miroirs.
“For me, Couperin and Rameau are like a couple, like Ravel and Debussy,” the pianist said. “I don’t play Debussy on this program, but it’s interesting to compare these four composers. Couperin, he is more intellectual. The music of Couperin is very simple but with a lot of details. And the music of Rameau is the music of the senses, the music of nature, the music of the opera – like Debussy. And Ravel is closer to Couperin. He’s also the composer of the musique intime [intimate music], with a lot of details. I think it is two phases of the French spirit.”
Tharaud describes Satie as the musical father of Debussy and Ravel as well as a range of other composers, including the 20th-century composing revolutionary, John Cage. “He was a genius,” he said. “I think he is not very known even now. If you talk about Satie, people say, ‘Yes, I know the first Gymnopédies or the Gnossiennes, but no more. And it’s important to play Satie. It’s difficult to play in a recital, because after 30 minutes, it’s a little bit too slow. But I think before Ravel, it’s a good prelude.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.