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Tiberghien Brings a Deft Touch to Chopin

Monday, September 28, 2009

Chopin may be a ubiquitous presence on piano recital programs, but too many pianists are willing to rush him off his feet, or emphasize structure over feeling. At his Kennedy Center Terrace Theater recital on Saturday afternoon, Cedric Tiberghien took his time with Chopin's Four Ballades, and the result was exquisite.

Playing with a feather-light touch and stretching the tempos in the slow introductions of all of the ballades, the French pianist drew a hushed, ruminative quality from those early measures before diving headlong into the tempestuous music that followed. Throughout these works, Tiberghien emphasized contrasts -- between inner dialogue and hectoring outburst, improvisatory noodling and grand rhetoric, elegant restraint and frank passion. More significantly, he made everything in these mercurial scores sound personal, as if his own warring emotions were finding spontaneous expression in the music under his fingers.

Most important of all (and a relative rarity, even among so-called Chopin specialists), he knew how to set the composer's rhapsodic melodies soaring -- pressing on a bit here and pulling back there, letting some of the salon sentiment bleed through just enough without sacrificing the music's poise, or lofting a phrase to hang longingly in the air, allowing it its necessary emotional and temporal weight. This was Chopin playing as layered and complete as anyone is likely to hear.

Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit" and three pieces by Debussy -- "Masques," "D'Un Cahier d'Esquisses" and "L'Isle Joyeuse" -- were (not surprisingly) dispatched with a sobering level of nuance and virtuosity. In all of these works, Tiberghien struck a perfect balance between clarity and atmosphere. Many an accomplished pianist can dazzle with the cascade of notes in the "Ondine" movement of "Gaspard." But how many allow us to hear the architectural workings of the score -- with the utmost transparency -- while so convincingly evoking the surging and splashing play of actual water?

-- Joe Banno

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