France hasn't produced a pianist of stature since Philippe Entremont in the 50s, but thanks to Jean-Yves Thibaudet it may soon have its national pride restored. At 35, the Lyon-born Thibaudet, who prepped with Satie specialist Aldo Ciccolini, has entered the prime of his career and seems eager to brandish his versatility. In April he made his operatic (albeit nonsinging) debut at the Met, playing Chopin's salon-pianist nephew in Giordano's Fedora; and on his latest CD (for his longtime label, London Records) he ventures into jazz, performing the compositions of Bill Evans. Thibaudet's focus, however, is still very much the 19th-century Romantic repertoire, especially the works of the French impressionists and of nationalist visionaries such as Chopin and Liszt. (His performances of two Schubert impromptus are on the sound track of Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady, but they come across as overly precious reveries rather than casual meditations.) He's a master at sifting through the subtleties of sonic textures: in his interpretations of Ravel's solo keyboard pieces, for instance, you can hear the emotions that ripple beneath the shimmering surfaces. With the concertos of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and other champions of grandiose pianism, Thibaudet knows how to convey their extravagant postures while retaining a sense of decorum (though in concert his trademark red socks hint at a prankish flamboyance of his own). A busy recitalist, Thibaudet has partnered violinist Joshua Bell and often accompanies singers like Cecilia Bartoli; here, too, he usually executes his duties with intelligence and macho grace, bringing to mind the French keyboard titan Robert Casadesus. At this weekend's Grant Park Symphony concerts, Thibaudet will solo in Saint-Saens's Piano Concerto no. 5, a lively, colorful stretch of chintzy suavity nicknamed the Egyptian. Also on the "Musical Travels" bill are Copland's Three Latin-American Sketches and Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3 (the Scotch). The conductor is Hugh Wolff, who's concluding his highly successful tenure as the downtown festival's music director to accept a post in Germany. Saturday, 8 PM, and Sunday, 7 PM, Petrillo Music Shell, Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson; 312-742-4763. Thibaudet will also perform selections from the Bill Evans tribute Friday at 6 PM, Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564. TED SHEN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phoy by James Minchen.