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Jean-Yves Thibaudet Offers Heartfelt Encores from Lockdown

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Courtesy of Harrison Parrott
Jean-Yves Thibaudet

When Jean-Yves Thibaudet was seven, his father brought him to a concert to hear pianist Arthur Rubinstein. After the performance, Jean-Yves and his dad met the legendary man backstage, where the precocious boy explained that he’d already made the decision to become a concert pianist. Rubinstein took him on his knee and gave him some sage and lasting advice: Love and value your audience above all else.

Thibaudet has knit that simple concept into his very being. And when COVID-19 struck, he turned the long months of lockdown at home into a new opportunity to thank his audience. “Carte Blanche” is a sparkling collection of encores, none of which Jean-Yves Thibaudet has ever before recorded, and all of which have a personal story.

I spoke recently to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and he told me about the many messages that lie behind his new CD. And you’ll hear some touching highlights from the recording.

Listen using the audio player above.


Cathy Fuller Hello, Jean-Yves, it's Cathy Fuller, how are you?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Hello, Cathy, I'm great, and yourself?

Cathy Fuller I'm fine. Thank you so much for doing this. It's probably been a long day.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Oh no, no, it's a great pleasure, of course.

Cathy Fuller You know, I have to say, I love my pianists. I have this thing about pianists. And you know, I always think of you guys as, like, troubadours, you know, crisscrossing the world, and you have these urgent, fabulous messages to give to the world. And when it did come to a screeching halt, where were you?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, I was lucky to be just, I just came back to my home in Los Angeles. I was playing at the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam] on Sunday, and I remember, I think it was the 7th of March last year, 2020. And I flew back on the 8th to Los Angeles, and then on the 12th is when the world came to a halt. And I was glad to be at my home in Los Angeles because if I hadn't been, I don't think I could have been back for a long time. So this is where I've been, and I've been at home in L.A. all this time. For the first almost a year, I didn't play a concert, travel, I mean, it was just crazy, like everybody else.

Cathy Fuller It's been hard for a lot of people to kind of find a balance in that case. How has that been for you?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, I went through different phases. I think we all have phases. The first phase was a shock phase, where suddenly you don't have to travel. I don't have to run around like I'm usually doing, so busy. It's like you wake up and you're like, OK, today I have nothing. Oh, well, tomorrow I have nothing. Well, next week I have nothing. So I have kind of a rejection.

So I didn't actually practice or play for the first few weeks, whatever it was. I was just shocked. I think I was in a real shock. My body was in shock. And then I kind of started realizing that it was going to go on for a bit, and maybe I should start to find something to do and pace myself. And of course, I came back to the piano and started playing. And then I started doing things that I never had time to do, like learning new pieces, like playing through old pieces. The funny thing is that I was going to the piano only -- not that I really don't -- but only because I felt like it was my love and just for fun. I didn't have, let's say, to practice for next week's concerto and the week after, the new piece, and then the week after. I was just going there because I wanted to go there, and I wanted to play the piano because it's my friend and I needed that, that moment, especially because you couldn't see many friends in those days, so it was even more important.

So it became really a choice and something of love. And this is how this album came about. I had all the time to research, to look at old pieces that I hadn't played in a long time. I would sit down and say, "Oh yes, let's play that piece, how did that feel?" "Oh," and I say, "Well, that's fun." And then try to learn new pieces, and create new projects. I mean, we had all this time. So I went through all of that.

And also, you reflect about life. You seek some of your priorities and things that you, for all this time, you kind of passed [because] you were just so busy. You just don't realize some things that are very simple that are so important. So I think it was an incredible lesson in a lot of ways.

Cathy Fuller I heard you tell the story once about a littler version of you. You were seven years old. You were sitting on pianist Arthur Rubinstein's knee after a recital that your father had brought you to. You must have really convinced him that you wanted to be a pianist when you grow up because he gave you this really sage advice about audiences.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Yes, he did. And I will never forget. Yeah, he told me that the most important thing in our life and career, if I ever would become a pianist, was the audience. He said you are there because of the audience and for your audience. Without your audience, you don't exist. And he was so right. He said, "So always be nice to your audience, and always sit there. They want to buy tickets to your concert, and buy the CDs" -- in those days there were no CDs, but whatever -- your albums. And he was so right, and I think it has been even more, I mean, with the time now and all these years behind, I realize that it's almost like, yes, of course, always new audiences. But there's a certain, I see that people are coming back. It's almost like the family, like a virtual family, see[ing] all those people that come to the concert and some you see over and over, over the years. And they age with you, and they come to your concerts. And sometimes eventually they bring their, of course, first, their wife or husband, and their children. Then they bring the grandchildren. It is incredible to see. And we have all this memory, and you see them in the same cities. You come back, and you're almost expecting them to come. And it's so wonderful that we have this, because our life is difficult. In normal life when we travel all the time, and we don't see our own family and our own friends so much, we're a little bit without roots. We're a little bit citizens of the world. So this is our family.

I always said my family is conductors on the podium, other colleague musicians that I perform with, and then is my audience, is my friends, whether they're old friends, new friends, whoever is there. And I always have time, and whenever I'm asked if it's possible to do a signing session or meet and greet after the concert, I always say yes, and I will always be there until the last person. I don't care if sometimes I'm pushed, people say, "Oh please, you have to go quickly." I say, "You know what? Those people have been there. They've been waiting. They bought the ticket. I'm going to sign the last program until it's finished." And I think it's normal. I think it's part of our life, and our duty, and our mission.

Cathy Fuller You know, I've always thought that one of the nicest things that you troubadours do, if we're an audience, is encores. I think audience members, they sort of feel like it's personal, like you're giving it directly to them and it's a kind of goosebump kind of thing. And so you've put together this CD. It's like a necklace of jewels, but in a way, it's like individual encores. It's an offering in a way. Is that right?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet You're absolutely right. This CD, I mean, [I've] been looking forward to do[ing] the CD for like, I don't know, 15 or 20 years now. And at the beginning, I called it, personally, was like "Encores," a CD with my favorite encores. And you're right, I think people in the audience, they always look forward -- and I do myself at a concert -- you look forward to the moment where the artist is going to be -- because you feel it’s the moment that the artist is completely free. Nobody forced him to do anything, it's not in the program, he can play whatever he feels like, and whatever he wants to. And of course, this album is only that, it's an entire album of pieces that I just want to play, that I just love, and I like to share with my friends. So, as Renée Fleming did, we had this wonderful time together. Instead of liner notes, we did this interview with Renée, which I thought was brilliant, and she was very generous to give me the time to do that. But she started by saying, "This is like an entire meal of dessert," she said [laughs].

Cathy Fuller It is, it is. But you know that's wonderful, that is, people will be happy to open it up and see that you're talking to Renée Fleming right in the liner notes, and that's lovely.

Tell me about Track 1, the "Dawn," from Pride and Prejudice and the rest of that. How did that come together?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, Pride and Prejudice has been a very important piece, I mean, the soundtrack has been a very important part of my life for lots of reasons. I think one of the most incredible reasons, fascinating, is that, thanks to that piece, it has opened the door to millions, and really, we're speaking of many, many millions of people, to classical music and to my work in other pieces. It's like people don't always have the opportunity to know about classical music, whether they were not given that by their parents or their upbringing, or whether they are afraid of it because they don't know anything about it. I mean, classical music is still not as open to everyone as I wish it was. I mean, it's difficult, of course. It's a battle that we all try to fight every day. But the beauty of the soundtrack is that we touch people that we would never touch with our albums of Chopin or Brahms or whatever it is. This just touches people and those people now, especially with the internet and everything, they Google you, they look [and say], "Oh, look, he's playing this and that. Let's listen to that." And that's just opened the door to an entirely new world for them. And that to me, is very, very important.

And I can think of so many concerts where people would come at the end of the concert and tell me, "Oh, we heard you in Pride and Prejudice, it's our favorite album. And this is, tonight, is my new fiancée, and I saw you were in town, and I wanted to give her something special. So we came to your concert. They have no idea what I'm going to play, they don't even know what's going on. They just come because of the pianist from Pride and Prejudice, and they just like that score. And I think that's fascinating.

So anyway, this is why I really wanted to have this piece there. But it was a challenge because the piece is with orchestra, and it's a long score. And so I just called Dario Marianelli, the wonderful composer, and I said, "Dario, would you consider writing a suite for solo piano just for my album, because I really would love to include your music in my album?" And he said, "Oh my god, yeah, I would love to." And he did, and he chose, I think you're right, five, episodes, five moments, important moments from the movie. And he put together that lovely and really gorgeous little piece, a suite of Pride and Prejudice themes.

[MUSIC - excerpt from Pride and Prejudice Suite]

The music is very touching. The movie's touching, the book is touching, I mean, come on, it's one of the most beautiful novels from Jane Austen. And I think his music really reflects that. And this proves that a piece of music, a great piece of music, can survive without the movie. You don't have to play the movie to enjoy the music. There you go. We have the music, and now I hope I'll be able to play it in recital or as an encore or whatever, whenever I have the chance, because it's music that I love. And also, that's why I wanted to open the album. It's kind of opening the door, saying to people, "Here, this is the music you know." They say, "Oh yeah, Pride and Prejudice." I say, "Now we play that, and then oops, we open the door, and then behind, let me show you some other pieces that I can play for you.” And it's kind of fun.

Cathy Fuller And I have to say, "The Living Sculptures of Pemberley," — that will get people to stop in their tracks. You do that so beautifully, so much control of the piano with so few notes. I really fell for that one.

[MUSIC - excerpt from "The Living Sculptures of Pemberley"]

Right after that, you go like 300 years way back, and suddenly we've got Scarlatti and Couperin. That's a nice shift, I thought.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet We decided to go from, like, a chronology, some kind of chronological order, which I think makes sense and actually organically flows and works very well. When I listen to the album all together, I thought it really worked to have this in that order. So we start back with what we call the clavicinistes, the time of the, you know, piano was a harpsichord, and people were composing for harpsichord. And Scarlatti, who wrote five-hundred-fifty-five gorgeous sonatas, it was only difficult to choose which one. And I chose that one because it's a particular connection to me, and I really, really love it, it's a dear, dear piece.

Cathy Fuller You put a couple of waltzes on after that, which are very touching. But that little Schubert waltz, which you play kind of with this languorous... kind of like you guys are going to fall into each other's arms at any second. Can you tell the story of that little waltz?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Yes, it's a beautiful little story with this little waltz. Schubert was at a wedding in Vienna, and at the end of the evening, he wrote on a napkin, just the
theme of that waltz. So just one, you know, one note at a time, just that little theme, and he gave it to the bride. Now we go forward in time, up to 1943. And we're in Vienna and Richard Strauss comes to the house of those people, the Kupelwiesers, to this family in Vienna, and he sees that napkin hanging on the wall. And he looks at it, and he says, "Well, what is this?" And they say, "Well, this is the piece that Schubert gave to our great great great grandmother." And he said, "Well, this is fascinating, I mean look at it," he said. "I love it. It's beautiful. So would you allow me to make a piece out of it?" And they say, "Of course!" And this is what he did.

[MUSIC - excerpt of "Kupelwieser-Walzer"]

He did it in a very Schubertian, classical way, up to that modulation, which is just before the recap of the piece, where it's like a little turn, a little twist, and there's a real Strauss moment.

[MUSIC - excerpt from "Kupelwieser-Walzer"]

That harmony... woof! The chord that arrives there. And then he goes back to the... And it's a very, as you say, a very touching piece. It's a piece that I heard of for the first time from my teacher. My wonderful teacher, Aldo Ciccolini, used to play that as an encore a lot. And the first time I heard it, which is probably 25, 30 years ago, I just told him, "What is this, Aldo?" And in those days, he was not even giving it a title, whatever. He says it's a Schubert piece, he was never really clear what it was, but we just loved it. And one day I said, "You know, can I have the score? I would love to learn the piece." And very, very late in his life, really toward the end, one day he showed me, he had kind of a piece of paper that had, you could hardly, it was like flies on a piece of paper, we could hardly see the notes, but it was there, and he said, "This is all I have." He said, "Good luck." So then he played it for me, and I wrote down, you know, a few notes that I could remember. And I just learned it, and it became really one of my favorite pieces. And I play it so often as an encore.

It's one of those really touching pieces that's soothing and, yeah, it's very, very special. So I obviously wanted it to be in that album.

Cathy Fuller It's one of those Schubert — direct line to the heart. Liszt and Brahms are that way, too. And you've got Liszt and Brahms here, that's just like lyricism galore. I remember a chat that you had with Michael Feinstein, the singer, and you said — it's like a great piece of, it's like a thing that Yoda would say — that when you see a line of music, a phrase of music, and you're not sure what to do with it or how to shape it, you should just sing it.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Sing it! Of course, I tell my students every day. And you know, this album, if anything, is also a tribute to singers and to the voice and to how much I learn from people like, you know, Renée Fleming, playing for her. It was just the biggest lesson of music, because we hear, suddenly, we have to think of phrasing, breathing, breathing! Number one, we never breathe on the piano otherwise. Breathing, phrasing, legato, shaping a phrase. I mean, all those things are singers, and this is what it is. So you're absolutely right. This Liszt Consolation, the Third Consolation is actually Bel Canto to me. The right hand is like a singer that just goes, the left hand is like the piano, the orchestra accompanying. And then you have the right hand — it's like the singer and is completely Bellini, completely Bel Canto.

[MUSIC - excerpt of Consolation No. 3]

Those incredible lines. And it's lyrical. It's beyond the piano completely.

Cathy Fuller Yeah, and just so beautiful. And I love also on this recording that you have a nod to some of the great jazzers, you know, and people like Bill Charlap, who is beloved. I think he's one of the greatest jazz pianists I've ever heard. And his arrangement of Alec Wilder's "I'll Be Around," that is just gorgeous. And also Earl Wild. I think his take on "Embraceable You," you do that very specially, Jean-Yves, I just really was taken by that — one of his virtuosic etudes after Gershwin.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Thank you. Yeah, it is very French, that particular arrangement, I think, is very French, which is what maybe attracted me.

[MUSIC - excerpt of "Embraceable You"]

It's very Impressionist. I think he did that on purpose. It's very Ravelian, it's fluid. It's a gorgeous piece.

[MUSIC - excerpt of "Embraceable You"]

Cathy Fuller And we were glad to see, my husband, Marc-André Hamelin, the Weissenberg piece that you play, "En Avril à Paris," which he, you know, the thing was it was a little recording that was circulating around pianophiles for a long time. It was called "Mr. Nobody Plays Trenet."

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Exactly, exactly. Isn't that fascinating? And then we realized that "Mr. Nobody" was Alexis Weissenberg.

Cathy Fuller I don't know, what do you think? I mean, it's hard to say. We went to visit him and he was suffering from Parkinson's, so it's a mystery why he didn't want people to know that it was him who laid down these unbelievable virtuoso versions of these songs. But maybe it was that, back then, you know, you wouldn't take a classical pianist seriously, you think?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet There you go. I think you touched it, that's exactly the point. Back in the 50s -- and listen, it was impossible. It could not ... and now there still are some people that are still a little bit looking at you a little bit strangely, if you're a classical pianist and you play something like that. They're like, "Oh, what is he?" They really don't understand why you do that. But in those days, I think it was like a stigma, and you just could not do that. You had to stick to what you were doing, and it was too dangerous. And he probably just didn't feel comfortable enough to offer that to
his audience. But how, I mean, how beautiful is that? I mean, it's just just fascinating.

Cathy Fuller It's the way the Schubert, you know, it's got all that sort of little river of melancholy. And yet it's so sweet.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet And then the arrangement, I mean, the pianistic, it's like big waves of... Ah!

[MUSIC - excerpt of "En avril à Paris]

It was so much fun to learn and to perform it. I have to say I did not know at all anything about those pieces until a student, at a masterclass, played it for me maybe two years ago. I was like, "What is that?" And I looked at the score, and I ordered the score that evening. It came from Japan. And then I saw, exactly, then I realized, you know, how much you know, your husband was involved in it. And I mean, I had no idea. I didn't know anything about this entire project and had never heard of it. So I became fascinated.

Cathy Fuller I have to tell you that when I saw that at the end of this recording, you have made your own piano transcription of Barber's Adagio for Strings, I thought, "How in the world can this work?" And you made it work. Wasn't that an incredible challenge?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Yeah, that was the biggest challenge on this album. I keep saying that, but it's true. Yeah, it was difficult. Not because it's difficult technically. I mean, like it isn't like fast notes. But because we are touching exactly the the actual existential problem of the piano and the pianist, is that we are playing a percussive instrument and yet we're trying to sing with it. And of course, it's a dream that will never, never happen. But we can still try to go as close as we can. And in this case, we have no bow to sustain those long notes in that slow tempo. And I said, "How can I do this on the piano?" So it was just lots of work and thinking. And I just transcribed the piece exactly. I mean, I didn't change one thing from the string quartet score. I didn't change anything. The voicings are exactly the same. But I just played between the fingering, the pedal, used a lot of the third pedal, the voicing, I mean it was really a lot of work. But it was fascinating for me. It was really a challenge to give myself. Let's see if I can make it work at the piano.

[MUSIC - excerpts of Adagio for Strings]

And we did four takes of it, and this is, I think, the second. I don't even think it's the last take. But we did four takes of it, just complete takes. And then we just listened back to what I did, and I almost felt like that it was not me playing. I was listening to it, and I felt I was remote from it. I was listening to it. I said, "Huh, this is really interesting out of this work." And I kind of liked it, I have to say. So I'm happy we were able to put it in this album because it's a piece — and I think especially at the time that we've just been through — it's a piece that is so reflective. It's such an incredible, timeless, hypnotizing, mesmerizing, spiritually powerful piece of music that I thought it was, just, it had to be there. We needed something like that.

[MUSIC - excerpt of Barber's Adagio for Strings]

Cathy Fuller Believe me, don't envy those of us on the radio who have to do these back-announces after it.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet [Laughs] Well, I said, you know, nothing after that, it's definitely ending the album, that's a sure thing.

Cathy Fuller Right. Well, you know, I'm looking at your schedule and things are picking up, aren't they? I mean, you've got six countries in the next 10 weeks, according to my calculations.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Yes, you're right.

Cathy Fuller So that's a good thing, right?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet It is. And I'm touching wood and praying that it continues like that, that nothing goes back to what it was. They can only go forward from now on. And I think this is so important, and it is so wonderful to be able to play again in front of audiences, to travel, and just to see your friends, to celebrate, to go to dinners. I mean, all those things that were part of... Have a social life, it's just so incredible. We need that as human beings and as artists. As Rubinstein used to say, we don't live without an audience. Who do you play for, just yourself and your dog or cat if you have one at home? And that's it. So that's not good enough.

Cathy Fuller I think that all the troubadours are going to be supercharged now! And the audiences are coughing less too, they say! So it's all good!

Jean-Yves Thibaudet They're all ready, I think we're all ready for that.

Cathy Fuller Well, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, it is always a joy to talk to you, and we are so heartened and happy that you're healthy and well and off and running, and we'll be thinking about you. And please come back to Boston as quickly as you can.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet I will! Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.