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A 'perfect week' of Messiaen for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet at Disney Hall

October 11, 2010 |  1:28 pm

Thibaudet The pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet calls the week ahead “the perfect week.” But for less technically assured musicians, having to perform two notoriously difficult, contrasting masterpieces by Olivier Messiaen within a few days of each other would be a nightmare.

On Tuesday, Thibaudet joins members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall for Messiaen’s austere and emotionally draining “Quartet for the End of Time.” Then, on Thursday through Sunday, he’s scheduled to play the composer’s huge and joyful “Turangalîla” Symphony with the full L.A. Philharmonic led by music director Gustavo Dudamel. This is the first time the 10-movement, 80-minute work will be heard in Disney Hall.

Thibaudet, 49, recently talked about the contrasting pieces he'll be performing. He reminisced about learning “Turangalîla” -- a complex quasi concerto –- in 1991. He said Rachmaninoff’s fearsome Third Piano Concerto was child’s play compared to the demands Messiaen makes on a pianist.

“It took me six months to a year before I was completely comfortable with 'Turangalîla,’” Thibaudet said. “As far as the pure technical, physical stuff, there’s nothing that comes near the sheer strength you need to play it –- it’s double the time of a Brahms concerto. You need to have an entire orchestra in your hands.”

In comparison, the “Quartet for the End of Time” is a mostly quiet, meditative work in eight powerful movements for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It was first performed in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941, with Messiaen himself playing on a battered piano.

“ 'Turangalîla’ is a masterpiece for 110 musicians who produce a magma of sound, like lava,” Thibaudet said. “But in the quartet, sometimes just one instrument plays at a time.”

“After 'Turangalîla,’ you want to jump, you are so excited,” Thibaudet continued. “It’s that explosion of joy and life. After the Quartet, you just want to disappear. People don’t know what to do, including myself. Sometimes after a performance, I can’t talk for a while. You are so moved.”

Messiaen, who died in 1992,  wrote “Turangalila” for his pianist wife, Yvonne Loriod, who lived until last May. Thibaudet, who knew them both, studied the score with her. He said he has performed “Turangalîla” –- the title originates from two Sanskrit words, “turanga,” time, and “lîla,” play –- in concert somewhere between 50 and 75 times. He recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly the year Messiaen died.

Thibaudet’s last memory of the composer is a framed picture on his piano. In it, he’s standing next to Messiaen outside the Trinity Church in Paris. “It was a Sunday in mid-January, and he was wearing this fantastic scarf that Yvonne knitted for him. That was his most cherished possession. It was so long it almost went to his feet, and it has every single color in the rainbow.”

Color is a key element in Messiaen’s music. Thibaudet recalled a letter Loriod sent him before a performance of “Turangalîla.” “She spoke of the sixth movement ('Garden of Love’s Sleep’) -- the magical center of the work,” he said. “She wrote: 'Try to find all the most incredible colors and variety and fantasy and sing with it.’ This is one of the most beautiful moments in the symphony every time I play it. It’s timeless. You’re on a cloud for 12 minutes with the piano just floating.”

According to Thibaudet, Messiaen, who studied birdsong and called birds “the greatest musicians on the planet,” actually specifies in the fourth movement (“Love Song II”) which bird is singing. “Some sound very harsh –- percussive and ugly. Some are very soft,” he said. “All of that you have to research. Then, at the moment of the concert, you completely let yourself go.
“Birds, rhythm, colors, his mystical Catholicism –- those elements were present for most of Messiaen’s life,” the pianist added. 

Thibaudet linked his recent Decca recording of vibrant jazz band versions of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Piano Concerto in F to Messiaen’s seemingly free compositional style. “There’s a freedom of improvisation in the birdsong,” he said. “Obviously, you’re following very strictly the rhythm, but the spirit of it is as close to jazz as it can get.”

Even after nearly 20 years performing “Turangalîla,” Thibaudet cannot take its technical demands for granted. “When I play the work four nights consecutively, a half hour before the show I slowly play all the chords that go in contrary motion in both hands,” he said. “It’s just frightening.”

Still, the pianist said he was thrilled when he heard that Dudamel specifically asked to program “Turangalîla” this season –- and Thibaudet himself suggested the quartet to go with it.

“I didn’t realize the symphony was very important to him,” he said. “Gustavo heard it when very young and was fascinated. I can certainly understand. Messiaen often told me 'Turangalîla’ was like going through life. And it’s true. There’s a progression of all these different feelings and moments -– joy, love, death, the spiritual, everything.”

-- Rick Schultz

Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Chamber music program: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Messian program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. $33-$175. (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: Thibaudet in April performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times