French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet carries himself as well as a striking Jean-Paul Gautier runway model. His elegant posture, perfectly tailored jacket and shock of hair swept to the side all make for a highly attractive stage presence. Far more importantly, Thibaudet's playing has unparalled polish and conviction, is full of tremendous power, and his complex keywork is as confident as the simplest of folkloric melodies are endearing.

Lionel Bringuier © Paolo Dutto
Lionel Bringuier
© Paolo Dutto

Astoundingly, he derives immaculate sound from what is a seemingly relaxed approach. He makes it look so simple. His hands cross over the keys with the ease of an afterthought, his arms sometimes falling forward as if he were reaching out for a drink at the bar. A serious player, he imparts a degree of lucidity to a whole host of genres, and is clearly as comfortable in the Grieg as he is, apparently, in his native French repertoire or even jazz. Given that his father was French and his mother, German, his playing has been cited as a liaison between French esprit and Teutonic precision; if that’s the easiest way to explain the best of his work, fine by me.

Grieg’s popular concerto was written in 1868 while the young composer was convalescing in Denmark. It features numerous echoes between the piano and the other soli instruments – most notably cello, flute, and clarinet – each of which smoothly underscores the piano’s same melodies. In the Allegro, Thibaudet picked up the bronzy cello’s line at greater volume and magnitude, just as he did with other solo instruments throughout the piece. His modelling of the sweet contours around five notes in countless variations was masterful, the fluidity of his playing, remarkable. Yet less ideally − and despite a heavy pedal − the pianist was sometimes outweighed by the huge sound of the whole orchestra, some 100-players strong. When it comes to volume, the Zurich hall is a grand old dame; she simply refuses to abide by the same rules that her younger, larger protégés today accommodate.

The Adagio began with a seamless entrance by the pianist, who fairy dust-like beginnings again parried with the cello in what was one of the sweetest moments in the whole performance. Thibaudet simply embraced the audience with an easy lullaby. The third movement Allegro moderato molto e marcato contains more folkloric content, a jolly, even square-dance type of dynamic that contains an imitation of a Norwegian country fiddle. While Thibaudet was sovereign, it was a sore disappointment here again not to be able to hear his final notes over the orchestra.

Also performed under Lionel Bringuier’s baton was the Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor of Johannes Brahms that Arnold Schoenberg adapted for orchestra alone to première in 1938. The opulent orchestration had its reasons, and they were included in the programme notes to great amusement. Why the adaptation? “One,” said Schoenberg, “I like the piece. Two, it is played only seldom. Three, it is always played very badly; the better the pianist he is, the louder he plays, such that one can’t hear any strings. I wanted for once to hear everything…”

Schoenberg stayed close to Brahms' 1861 piano work, but went on to include many more layers, and interjected a degree of counterpoint that exceeds that in the original. The piece builds up, then recedes and diminishes again and again, the sensation of rich tapestry of sound alternating with the simple melodies of a muslin drape. While the third movement includes a rousing chorus of four horns in brilliant syncopation, the finale, Rondo alla zingarese: Allegro is even more marked by a high-spiritedness we hardly associate with Schoenberg. The composer himself was well satisfied with his achievement, incidentally; half-jokingly, half seriously, he contended that he had helped Brahms to no less than a “Fifth Symphony”.

While here at the Tonhalle the principals – particular cello, flute, clarinet, tuba – shone in the Brahms, conductor Lionel Bringuier seemed to approach this particular piece somewhat dispassionately. While his cues were precise, and he was quick to acknowledge each musician for his or her part, his direction was somewhat more reserved and moderated than what we saw in the earlier months of his tenure. What’s more, the orchestra showed a palpable degree of ennui, its deadpan reaction to applause even after the final chord with none of its usual spirited reception. If the musicians and the conductor alike found the piece itself somewhat pale and uninspired, then I believe I was on that same page.