Piano Masterclass by Jean-Yves Thibaudet


Jean-Yves Thibaudet conducted a second masterclass for piano majors at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on 12 October 2015. (The first was in 2007.)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is my favourite French pianist, and his 2007 recording of the CD, Aria – Opera Without Words is one of my favourites. It features aria transcriptions, some of which are Thibaudet’s own. He was the soloist for the soundtracks of the films Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, all of which I watched and enjoyed.

The first student to play was Yap Sin Yee (B. Mus, Year 4), who impressed me with her performance last Friday (detailed in the post Concert: Piano, 9 Oct 2015). Incidentally, Thibaudet would be performing the complete collection (Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs) in his recital on the evening of 13 October 2015.

After Yap played Noctuelles (“Night Moths”), Thibaudet commented that her playing came across as beautiful, both in colour and atmosphere. As I brought along the music scores, I was amazed to see the incredible amount of details, not just the copious amount of notes but also the dynamics and pedalling. And each time Thibaudet made a comment, he would demonstrate by playing; for example, how to play the opening with a different colour, how to give more importance to certain notes when the harmony is not so interesting, how to start an ascending running passage at pianissimo and do a diminuendo (instead of a crescendo), how to be careful with pedalling at ppp sections, how to play with more rubato, how more contrasting dynamics are needed in the ‘Pas trop lent’ section, how phrases needed to be warmer and more expressive, and how the staccato of the last note musst not be too short. Every now and then, he would comment that music is almost like the human voice, and he would hum the melody and show how these can be sung by the fingers, including the notes of the inner voice as it gives the music another dimension. He showed where and how to change pedals for the best effect and he demonstrated how to make a better phrase. I was mesmerised watching how amazing clusters of  notes just flowed from Thibaudet’s fingers!

Yap then played Une Barque sur l’ocean (“a boat on the sea”) and Thibaudet commented that the sound was really so beautiful that he had very little to say. He felt she did a wonderful tremolo in the right hand and that the running passages were incredible. There were additional tips on how to make a difference between piannisimo vs piano the second time around while still singing both the top note and the inner voice and at the same time keep the rhythm going, and how to make a little magic like including bell-like effects and how to do a pppp ending. Of course, he played the piano to demonstrate all his points. It was almost like watching him rehearse for the recital!

It was a real treat to hear Nguyen LeBinh Anh (B.Mus, Year 2) play Cesar Franck’s (1822-1890) Variations Symphonique! I was already so impressed, (because when I first heard this piece played by another student I didn’t like it but this time I did), yet Thibaudet’s first comment was to “play it with a little more presence and don’t be shy”. He proceeded to show what he meant. I was blown away! He really gave another meaning to “more meat”, and showed how to make a sound bigger or smaller where necessary. Thibaudet also played the orchestra reduction for Nguyen at some places, and sang the inner parts at other places. Thibaudet’s passion for music could be felt when he started to sway to the music when Nguyen played, imploring him to “go all out and sing with full passion” at the passionato section. There were playful moments in the music too. As with Yap, whenever Thibaudet made a comment, like “make a voice” or “sing the left hand” or “take a deep breath before a big chord” or “think in long phrases” or “show contrast when getting from fortissimo to pianossimo” or “don’t rush”, he would demonstate on the piano by playing the said sections. Simply wonderful!

The final piece for the day was Franz Liszt’s (1811-1886) Piano Concerto No 1 in E-flat major, S. 124 played by Dolpiti Kongviwatanakul (B. Mus, Year 2). As with the previous piece, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the performance, but Thibaudet requested “bigger sound” and proceeded to demonstrate. He did not just play the opening, but also showed how to use the body effectively to achieve the desired effect. Pedalling is tricky here, what with the improvisatory-like passages; and Thibaudet played and demonstrated all. I especially enjoyed watching him doing  flutter pedalling as his bright red bespoke shoes gleamed. I was utterly fascinated by the way Thibaudet played a very long thrill with crescendo and then diminuendo! He also showed how to play rapid passages with elegance. Other tips include how to play longer phrases with pedal, how to change pedal sensitively with the harmony, the need to be dramatic or operatic (eg at energicamente), how to go from pesante e rit to dolce amoroso and dolcissimo and how to “shine” in playing.

Observing a masterclass conducted by Jean-Yves Thibaudet is like being at his private music studio. Watching him play live is an experience that comes rarely. I hope it is not another eight years before he visits Singapore again!


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