The Stockholm Concert Hall had a French air to it last night: Jean-Yves Thibaudet on the piano and Stéphane Denève conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. But not only that, on the programme there was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, Debussy’s Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune and Florent Schmitt’s La tragédie de Salomé, together with Icarus, a contemporary piece by Russian-American composer and pianist Lera Auerbach.

Stéphane Denève © Jan-Olav Wedin
Stéphane Denève
© Jan-Olav Wedin

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has extensive experience of playing and recording French avant-garde composers, most recently with a recording of Satie’s complete piano music from Decca, but that is by no means his only area of expertise. Indeed, his repertoire ranges from the great classics to contemporary composers like Qigang Chen or James MacMillan.

Opening with Auerbach’s Icarus (2011), the evening began in a most promising way. The work presented a very interesting sound, for instance by using the string section in an almost percussive way, by exploring the cello’s upper register in a brief solo, and finally with the use of a theremin in the orchestra. Auerbach thus depicted the mythological story of Icarus, who, in his ambition to fly, eventually got so close to the sun that the wax fixing his wings melted and he plunged to his death. The fall, symbolised with an accelerating glissando in the theremin, was powerfully illustrative and the work as a whole was a great piece of contemporary instrumental music.

Then, once the piano had been set on the stage, in came the evening's soloist. Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major – or rather, as Denève put it, “the one for two hands” – was played in a relative rush, and albeit demonstrating Thibaudet’s proficiency at the keys, it left one with the strong feeling that the orchestra was trying to chase the soloist. During the slow second movement, however, the cohesion was much greater, and it resulted in a much more balanced sound. The third and last movement, with its exultant character, brought the piece to a grandiose close.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic © Jan-Olav Wedin
Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic
© Jan-Olav Wedin

After the subsequent ovation, Thibaudet delighted the audience with an encore – Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, where he seemed entirely comfortable in the piece’s melancholic character.

The evening’s second part began with Debussy’s well-loved Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The faun’s solo flute was played flawlessly and the rest of the orchestra followed its lead. What resulted was 10 minutes of utter immersion in fin de siècle France, paying testament to what was without a doubt an admirable performance. Following this rather early work of French impressionism, Florent Schmitt’s La tragédie de Salomé, which hadn’t been played at the Stockholm Concert Hall since the 1930s, made a big impression. Much admired by none other than Stravinsky, the work really presented much of what would later become part of the Russian composer’s modernist language: juxtaposing rhythms, eloquent, powerful orchestration and innovative use of bitonality. As speculated by the programme notes’ author, Schmitt might have been a much bigger name today in the repertoire had it not been for his support for the Vichy regime during WWII. His music most definitely deserved the attention Denève and the orchestra gave it.