Cédric Tiberghien’s recital at Symphony Center on Sunday built up like a crescendo, rising to ever greater heights of contrast, color and explosive energy. Struggling to connect with a distracted audience in the first half, the young French pianist returned in the second with a much surer sense of tempo and a deeper, more grounded sound.

Some lovely effects peppered the pianist’s opening selection, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, including the final shimmer of “Ondine” and the opening chimes of “Le gibet”. Yet the effects were never really swept up into a current; Tiberghien seemed to phrase methodically and somewhat arithmetically in the first half. The spaces between the notes lacked richness and suspense, and the chords lacked a sense of resonance and spine. “Scarbo”, Gaspard’s devilish finale, was impressively dry at the outset, but the pianist could have risked more in its sudden twists and explosions – Tiberghien cornered like a Honda instead of a Ferrari.

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

Each half ended with a set of pieces by Debussy. In the first half, four Preludes – Canope, Les collines d’Anacapri, Des pas sur la neige and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest – struggled to find that gaspingly limpid tone that is so hard to capture in pieces of this length, and therefore constitutes their chief difficulty. Perhaps Tiberghien was picking up a restlessness in Symphony Center’s mid-afternoon audience, for it seemed that he often shortchanged moments that could have been held longer.

Far more successful was the closing Debussy set. In Masques, I loved the way snippets of far-off melody would float in from behind walls of commotion, and admired the way Tiberghien made it seem, in D’un cahier d’esquisses as though different parts of the piece were coming at you from different distances; this requires modulation not just of the dynamic level, but a mixture of dynamics, blurriness, and directness of touch.

The raucous festivity of the Masques was presented in somewhat different form in Szymanowski’s Masques, Op.34, which Tiberghien played with the score and an assurance that eclipsed everything else (except perhaps the encores) that afternoon. The rolled chords that appear early in “Shéhérazade” (the first movement) were played as if tracing the outline of something without substance, an ingenious effect that exemplified the creativity with touch and attack that was in evidence throughout the set. If I had one objection, it would be that Tiberghien’s sound tends to be anchored in the middle of the keyboard, and notes at the bottom and top of the piano’s compass often feel like satellites to this middle range. There sometimes lacks the sense that the very low notes ground the textures rather than decorating them.

Tiberghien returned for two encores, Debussy Preludes again: the conservatory favorite La cathédrale engloutie followed by Feux d'artifice which, as the pianist reminded us from the stage, ends with a whisper of La Marseillaise. In these last numbers, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, rapt at the way he excavated deeply buried sounds in the first encore and his dextrous touch in the second. And, to show off his ability to transform the piano’s sound one last time, Tiberghien closed the concert with those notes from the French anthem, sounding more like toy bells than a Steinway grand.