★★★★½ French piano star’s journey through the keys from C to B Minor.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
November 13, 2016

 

An inspired last-minute change to the running order gave French pianist Cédric Tiberghien’s recital in the final of the 2016 Utzon Series a satisfying feeling of cohesion. He had planned to take his audience on a journey through Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, followed by 16 of the 24 Preludes ending with Liszt’s B Minor Sonata. But swapping the order of the Chopin works presented a logical ascent through the keys, starting with C Major and with the 16th prelude in B Flat Major leading neatly into the composer’s second sonata in the same key.

 

The 41-year-old rangy Tiberghien is an intense and exciting performer, crouching low over the keyboard and slowly unfolding his frame for the more expansive passages. He is no stranger to Australian audiences, having performed Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony under Simone Young a few years back, and touring here with chamber music partner violinist Alina Ibragimova. This recital was a rare opportunity to get a close view of the international virtuoso.

The preludes with their quick changes of mood and tempo offer a rich range of colours for the pianist and Tiberghien has the full palette. There may be more elegant and poetic Chopin interpreters like Garrick Ohlsson or Polina Leschenko, but here is an artist with both power and sensitivity and with plenty to say.

The dark hues of the B flat Minor sonata sat very well under his fingers, with the famous march building inexorably with its tolling bass notes, the clouds lifting briefly for the lovely nocturne-like middle section before the funeral procession recedes into a ghostly distance. Despite some occasional blurred articulation, Tiberghien brought off the presto finale with its extraordinary flurry of notes – an angry paroxysm of grief.

Having the two sonatas played straight after each other also pointed up the contrasting styles of these two very different composers whom history has lumped together. Chopin’s piece was famously described by Schumann as four of Chopin’s “maddest children harnessed together” to form a sonata, whereas Liszt’s is one single work with no pauses.

Tiberghien explained to the audience that to analyse the piece would take days, possibly weeks, but amazingly Liszt lays out the elements for the next 30 minutes of music in the first page like the ingredients for a recipe. “It begins and ends in silence. It is one of the biggest journeys for the performer,” he said.

The audience strapped in their seat belts and was given a thrilling ride with this reading with Tiberghien negotiating the many curves with aplomb, pellucid in the tranquil passages and explosively passionate in the final five minutes.