Dynamite and fairy dust: Cédric Tiberghien’s Chopin and Liszt

July 9 marked the launch of this summer’s first “Piano” festival week at the Musikdorf Ernen, and the superb French pianist Cédric Tiberghien was the evening’s featured soloist. Born in 1975, Tiberghien was once a student of the legendary music pedagogue and pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) − the Ernen Musik Festival’s founder − so his appearance here in Ernen was a particularly meaningful one. As is usual, the concert venue was the Baroque parish church St. Georg, whose acoustics are often cited as excellent.

Physically, Tiberghen is a tall man, and his fingers are long enough to easily manage even more than an octave. Long fingers don’t always imply great dexterity, but this pianist’s digits readily alternated between unprecedented speeds and then barely touching the keys, as if they were a fragile treasure. His upright posture on the bench was regal, but he also varied positions readily, often leaning demonstrably over the keys. He might pose several inches above them for a particularly spirited passage, or snap a strong gesture at the end of a phase that seemed almost electric. Nor was he averse to “speaking” to the keys as he played, as if to say, “here, then, it’s this” or “Yes, absolutely!” Even to watch the movement of the muscles in his cheeks was to see his communion with the instrument. In short, Tiberghien was thrilling, both to hear and to watch.

His repertoire began with Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B-minor, op. 35. He marked the first movement Grave with a generous pedal, perhaps even a bit too heavily for my taste. The familiar and energetic Scherzo, however, showed a tighter grip on its inherent contrasts. Its lyrical center was nothing short of dreamy, and returning to the primary theme, the repeated clusters of keys might be said to preview the modern. Sadly, the familiar Marche funèbre was impacted by an unfortunate technical glitch, namely that a leak the church’s roof − which is undergoing a major renovation − actually shed droplets onto the floor of the nave: a sound intriguing to some, but highly disturbing to others. I myself wondered whether the drips shortened the length of Tiberghien’s pauses, but any concerns were put to rest when the Presto kept his fingers moving at a clip.

Second on the program was Chopin’s Scherzo Nr. 2 in B-minor, op. 31. There, Tiberghien’s attacks were so pointed and precise that he took on the countenance of a feral animal. By contrast, the sheer translucence of the second segment was almost timidly played, making a case for Chopin’s brilliant ability to score diametrically opposed characterizations within a single piece.

A selection of Franz Liszt’s piano works followed. The Bagatelle sans tonalité was a visceral piece, but after its last enormous chord, the artist tightly balling and raising his left fist across his body was a gesture I shall never forget. Its palpable tension brought on a gasp throughout the church. The Mephisto-Waltz no 4 S. 696 began with a fiery exposé of hundreds of notes packed so densely together that the pianist’s fingers seemed like flames burning up and down the keys. His La lugubre gondola S 200 carried highly unexpected – again, remarkably modern – intervals, and as if in ripples of water, Tiberghien’s torso moved with them like a boat nudging into a pier. Finally, the Csardas macabre S. 224 showed another electric charge at work: a turbulence as muscular as it was earth shattering.

After the break − and mutual gratitude for the rain having stopped, − the concert continued with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor S 178. A backbreaking enterprise, it showed Tiberghien mindful of the composer’s demands to alternate an arsenal of dynamite with the finest fairy dust. Rarely have I heard such technically demanding repertoire meet with such range of expression. The pianist’s interpretation of Liszt simply became him, as if he were standing in for the composer. With such a thick carpet of notes, Liszt clearly intended to show the full range of the instrument, periodically drawing so many together as to sound like a duo pianos performance. Added to that dynamic, Tiberghien diminished a peaked timbre to something comparable only to the embrace of an old friend – which made the work infinitely likeable. And finally, he could both exploit the powers of “holding back” for a split second to boost the impact of a given phrase, or diminish intensity such that you wanted to ask for more: in short, here was truly brilliant piano by a master of his trade.  

Ernen, Wednesday, 10 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet