A key performance unlocks every note of familiar pieces so they can be enjoyed as if for the first time. Tiberghien began by paying homage to the “amazing” acoustics of Koerner Hall, then proved it by opening the minuet of Schubert’s Six moments musicaux softly as a breeze coloured lightly with birdsong. His sketch alternated crisp runs, bold muscular strokes, and triplets rolling out melodies warm with homage to Beethoven. Over the finely articulated softness that is his signature, Tiberghien revealed in the succeeding Moments a tapestry of moods. The second, a rondo, sings of a funereal sadness, quiet as moonlight, then grows into rhythms dancing with insistent passion. The third is a Russian peasant dance, the fourth has the complex interplay of Bach, a touch of ragtime, and dreamy textures of later Romantic music. The fifth is a horse-race, athletic but also raw as a wound. The closing Moment is an anguished lyric touched with bravery, reminding us that when this work was published in 1828, Schubert was destitute and in the final months of his losing the battle with a terminal disease.

Cédric Tiberghien © Benjamin Ealovega
Cédric Tiberghien
© Benjamin Ealovega

In Tiberghien’s hands, Alban Berg’s first and only Piano Sonata of 1908 became a kind of Nachtmusik. When Marc-André Hamelin plays it, Berg’s improvisational flow that hovers at the edge of tonality is a dreamy, pastoral idyll that cracks open to gush with passionate urgency. When Hélène Grimaud plays it, the same alternation of dreamy and emphatic tones suggest the future of jazz – Monk and John Lewis – riffing amid suspended silences. Tiberghien’s hands bring out of the limpid ripples of Berg’s Op. 1 a sense of crystal and ebony that invokes the depraved urban underworld of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin.

It is a rare concert where all the music after intermission continues to sound fresh. Tiberghien’s second Schubert offering, the Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958, was that and more. Taking the dire, dramatic theme Schubert borrowed from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor as the starting point, Tiberghien brings on the fluid runnings and lyric shifts of the Allegro. His assiduous pedalling reveals an appreciation of its overall architecture. The haunted Adagio is played tenderly, but accented by surges of amplification that rear up harshly then graduate down to the tiniest of tones. The Menuetto with its Trio emphasize the dance-like qualities of the two previous movements as prelude to the finale’s long, tarantella gallop across a sprawling landscape of meadow, streams and groves like a hunt in full cry after a vanishing fox.

As if saving the best for last, M. Tiberghien announced his final selection, Debussy’s Masques (1904), with the words “And now, something French!” Debussy’s music is well known for its painterly aspects, most usually associated with “Impressionism” (an association Debussy rejected). In this case, the graphic inspiration for Debussy’s compositions came from the 18th-century Flemish painter Watteau’s languid, iridescent scenes of pastoral life. As the title, Masques, reveals, there are also theatrical influences at work here reflecting Debussy’s interest in the characters of the commedia dell’arte, as well as reference to his own opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). Given these influences, it is not strange that in Tiberghien’s expresssive hands, L’isle joyeuse should reflect intimations of Gershwin (“Summertime”), Sondheim and Bernstein (“Somewhere”) and the shimmerings of many Romantic musicals. Together with the lesser known, quirky, cartoonish D’un cahier d’esquisses, originally a sketch for La mer, these vignettes from La Belle Époque, seemed to release Cédric Thibergien from the bonds of the virtuoso, into a whiz of a piano-player who has fun sharing his huge enjoyment of pianism with an audience that earned three encores.