He comes out like Oberon, with hair of gold and a light step. It’s a very careful walk he has, nothing fancy, and he sits on the bench with a kind of directness and naturalness of purpose. The first notes are the “Menuet Antique.” I am sitting far away at this point, and I hear the jagged off-beats of the left hand hopping out. It takes no time to be lost in this world, a world of fantastic play and even more fantastic loneliness. Is it Jean-Yves Thibaudet, or is it Ravel? Always, when watching this pianist, I see a solitary soul. Nothing in his biography suggests this kind of singleness, far from it. So maybe it really is Ravel, dreaming in his little house, full of clocks. When Jean-Yves got to the “Pavane,” the sense of hearing an intimacy was complete. He played it at a good clip; but its tale is far from simple, like a Matisse. Ravel’s music is not child-like. It is the music of a child. Later on even the Scarbo, the composer’s most violent and extreme piece, had composure somehow. I heard something like violent decorum. Again it seemed as if Mr. Thibaudet was playing this piece, one of the showiest in the repertoire, entirely for himself. By this time I was sitting in the balcony and could see the simple benign curves of his face, never disturbed by a ferocious concentration. Eased by it, I thought. I thought back many years to the sound of Jan DeGaetani’s voice, singing Ravel’s L’Enfant, in the pages where he first sees the Fairytale Princess.
Virgil Thomson wrote about Ravel: “For all the clarity that his music embodies, its crystalline lucidity in every phrase, it probably expresses less of personal sentiment than any of the major music of our century.” This is wrong. At least Mr. Thomson is wrong emphatically. This is a description of Mr. Thomson’s music with Ravel serving as godfather. All those years Thomson spent in Paris, and he never heard the slow movement of the G major concerto? There are three lonely composers: Schubert, Britten, and Ravel. No one would call Schubert’s music cool. Some find Britten’s music cool, even cold. Leonard Bernstein likened it to gears not meshing. Almost everyone calls Ravel’s music cool, distant, staged. This is not true. It has the loneliness that a child can have, someone who has not learned to connect, perhaps does not want to connect. But the music itself is anything but cold. A few days after hearing Mr. Thibaudet I heard the excellent Stéphane Denève lead the Philadelphia Orchestra through Ma Mere l’Oye. The playing was absolutely superb. The fairy garden at the end, the Paradise we are all looking for was precisely located for us, by the composer and the playing. Ravel’s genius stays located in the magic mother-dominated world of a child, a child with the best ears that ever were. Mr. Thibaudet showed me this.