Jean-Yves Thibaudet is 19. Yesterday afternoon in the Terrace Theater, in his Washington debut, the prize-winning French pianist played Ravel's Sonatine, which 20-year-old Cecile Licad had played there 24 hours earlier.
Comparisons were impossible. Both are superbly talented, brilliant musicians. Each saw the same notes on the page, yet there were notable differences as the music emerged. Thibaudet heard other inner voices than Licad, chose other pedaling and phrasing, took another path to the beauty in the lovely work. His exquisite conception and execution placed his Sonatine a shade above Licad's.
Thibaudet then produced a tremendous reading of Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit." It was filled with magical sounds, compounded by the operation of hands and feet he controls with phenomenal facility. At the beginning of Scarbo his long fingers moved over the keys like some predator stealthily stalking its prey, which is not far from the way every pianist approaches this fiendishly difficult challenge. But the hushed murmurs of Le Gibet and the vast eruptions of Ondine were just as impressive as the intense finale.
The first half of the program was taken up with Schumann's "Scenes of Childhood" and Symphonic Variations. The latter were full of the kind of musicianly virtuosity that makes them at once imposing and exciting. There were times, however, in the "Scenes" when the pianist's youth betrayed him in some rather literal pacing where lingering reflection, which is the heart of the music, would have made his playing irresistible. Perhaps that is something youth cannot know. In Thibaudet's case, it seems likely that he will acquire whatever he needs.