Two suites of piano music by Russian composers formed the outer panels of an absorbing and impressive concert triptych whose middle panel was occupied by a work by Philippe Hersant, composed especially for the performer, French pianist Cédric Tiberghien.

Cédric Tiberghien © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Cédric Tiberghien
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

It takes a special kind of performer to begin a large programme with fleeting, intimate piano miniatures such as Prokofiev’s quirky yet dazzling Visions Fugitives (which literally translates from the Russian as “things flying past”), but Tiberghien succeeded in capturing the audience’s attention from the start and retaining it through the twenty short pieces which comprise this suite, composed when the precocious Prokofiev was still in his twenties. Such music encourages an audience to listen especially attentively and (hopefully) guarantees their concentration for an entire programme, which was certainly the case at this concert where the collective sense of careful listening was very palpable.

Tiberghien revealed the individual characters of these tiny gems of the repertoire through his multi-layered sound and micro-nuanced dynamics from the most delicate filigree pianissimos to bold percussive drum beats. Always alert to the unusual tonalities and mercurial switches in tempi, colour and mood, from surreal to humorous, lyrical to percussive, Tiberghien brought these miniature pieces to life with wit and imagination, creating a most satisfying opener to the concert and setting the bar high for the rest of the evening.

Philippe Hersant’s In Black was written for, and dedicated to, Tiberghien in 2007 and was conceived as an epilogue to his opera La Maine noire, based on Chekhov’s story The Black Monk. Although fed by literary influences, the work also draws inspiration from the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square on White Background, and is infused with Russian sounds: the chanting of Russian orthodox monks is integral to the work’s soundworld. It also recalls Liszt in its glittering virtuosic passages and plangent bass figures, which Tiberghien handled with panache and conviction, once again treating us to his vibrant palette of sounds.

Mussorgsky’s monumental Pictures at an Exhibition formed the final panel in this rich musical triptych in which Tiberghien gave full rein to his musical imagination to create a performance in which Viktor Hartman’s pictures, the original inspiration for the work, were vividly portrayed. A different touch and focus for each hearing of the Promenade shifted the mood to create the sense of one walking around the gallery with the composer – and pianist – coming upon each picture with delight or surprise, from a grotesque and ferocious gnome to a darkly-lit old castle, the chirruping argumentative voices of children, a ponderous ox hitched to a laden cart, the bustle of market day in Limoges, an unsettling encounter with the catacombs and the haunting meditation on death which follows, and the terror of Baba Yaga. The imposing finale The Great Gate of Kiev rang out with triumphal exuberance, providing a splendid contrast to the intimacy and quirkiness of the opening Prokofiev, and confirming Tiberghien’s command of pianistic colour, vivid dynamic range and expression.  

For an encore a return to the surreal intimacy of the Prokofiev with Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes, allowing us to savour once more Tiberghien’s delicacy of touch and wonderful multi-faceted sound.

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