This experienced artist came to play a challenging program of music by Franz Liszt, and left having made some converts to his engagingly direct, no-nonsense Gallic approach. In his elegant blue suit, with a flowing blonde mane and diamonds at his belt and throat, Thibaudet cut quite a figure as he strode out onto the Hahn Hall stage. Thibaudet began with Liszt’s Consolations, a set of six tone poems, all but one of which could be marked, as the No. 4 is, cantabile con divozione, or “songful with devotion.” This was followed by Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este, which is more of a tone painting, the subject being the fountain in the courtyard at Liszt’s favorite accommodations in Rome. Rooted in the Germanic tradition of Italian artistic pilgrimage, it nevertheless conjures the atmospherics of later 19th- and early 20th-century French music for the piano.
The two Légendes with which Thibaudet closed the first half of the concert are wonderful examples of what Liszt did best, which is a kind of musical narrative—so-called program music. These two pieces tell the story of two saints whom Liszt considered his name patrons, Francis of Assisi and Francis of Paola. The first animates the famed sermon to the birds and is filled with the sprightliest and most delicately avian of tremolos. The second is more dramatic, as it depicts the miracle in which St. Francis of Paola is said to have surfed the ocean waves on his cloak.
Returning after intermission, Thibaudet charged deeper into the supremely demanding work of Liszt with four consecutive showstoppers. The first, Meine Freuden, is an arrangement of a love song by Frédéric Chopin, and Thibaudet sparkled when it came time to decorate the theme with trills, adding his own virtuosic commentary on Chopin to Liszt’s. Next was the Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, an excursion into hyper-romanticism that again brought out the pianist’s considerable technical prowess. The Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde came and went in a typically Lisztian welter of arpeggios, and the Tarantella stood at the end as a rich and wild exit from these heady realms.