Awhile back, there were news reports that the CIA and FBI were using computer software to analyze people's gaits in an attempt to stop terrorists from blowing up buildings. The argument ran that terrorists tends to walk nervously, hunched over, and in such a way that announced to a detailed computer program that they had a bomb strapped to them. Predicting what sort of music a performer will create based on how they walk onstage doesn't seem quite so outlandish when I remember that our hard-working government has people doing something similiar to ensure the future of western civilization.
Keith Jarrett moves from offstage to center stage as easily as walking down the sidewalk, sometimes so at ease that his his hands are stuffed in his pockets. He began his improvised solo concert Saturday night at Orchestra Hall with a breezy chromatic dash that covered all the piano's octaves, softly. This grew into a tightly focused left-hand ostinato, with boppish lines laid on top of it. His second number was gospel waltz, the third a Ligeti-esque tinkler, and the fourth was a simple song. That slow song contained the sadness of a lifetime. Leisurely, pensively, gracefully, that song unfolded, its minor key resolving in the major every so often, the major chords sounding even more wistfully than the minor. His first half closed with another Ligeti-sounding exercise.
The days of epic, 45-minute uninterrupted stretches of the solo concerts are gone, I think it's safe to conclude. The concerts that have found their way to commercial recordings, from Tokyo and Carnegie Hall, are broken up into smaller sections of 10 to 15 minutes, and that formula, if it is a formula, prevailed Saturday night. Some listeners were irked by that, some think he's sold out, and while the applause was deafening, it's still clear that not everyone likes this new direction.
The first rule of criticism is that you don't criticize something for not being what it is. Landscape painters aren't trashed because they aren't Jackson Pollock, Ned Rorem isn't tossed aside for not being Pierre Boulez, and, in this case, Keith Jarrett circa 2007 shouldn't be listened to as if he's Keith Jarrett circa 1975. The sections of Friday night's concert added up to something as powerful as the totality of the Cologne concert, but achieved that in different ways, in different amounts of time.
The fourth song from the first half, its bass line descending downward step by step, its atomized melody letting each note be torn from it, had in its power to reduce 2,200 people to silence. That Jarrett did that in five minutes instead of over 45 shouldn't be that important. He pulled that trick off again a few times in the second half, most often in his five encores. An ebullient stride improvisation over rhythm changes did it, as did his last selection, "When I Fall in Love," the only non-improvised portion of the concert.
Jarrett 1975 and Jarrett 2007 both moan and sing along and writhe and gyrate at the keyboard, and everyone's got an opinion on whether it's distracting or integral, and I'll take integral. I'm also not put off by his request that no one cough, but just say that if he's concerned enough to make the request, maybe he shouldn't play in Chicago in February. We're all much healthier in spring and summer. One denizen of the upper balcony came down with a coughing fit , and he actually stopped playing, raised his hand, and asked the person to cough once more, because he said he knew there was one more. Once more they coughed, then he picked back up.
He finally left the stage with the same droll assurance with which he walked on two hours earlier, but the audience left buzzing.
In stark contrast is Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose birdlike legs appear to cover the ground from the stage door to the piano parked at center stage in two strides. Once there, he's burdened with music that must be released.
The collection of six Chopin pieces he began his Sunday afternoon recital with at Orchestra Hall hit the intellectual median of his program, with headier works by Debussy, Messiaen and Liszt on one side and humorous Satie on the other. Through it all, his spidery fingers etched out the fine lines of each differently inspired composer.
Most surprising was Liszt's Dante sonata, which Thibaudet brought a booming sound to and no lack of drama or technique apparent. Some may approach achieve a richer tone with the pedal, but he knows his technique and how best to deploy it. I've heard him give a riveting performance of Liszt's Totentanz, but was still pleasantly surprised with the Frenchman's idiomatic exuberance in the Dante sonata.
Thibaudet is, of course, one of the most renowned pianists of the French rep. The first and seventh Gnossienes contained revelations in the inner voices, even in the supremely well-known first (which I was heard with a backbeat while in a taxi). His three Debussy etudes were models of clarity, although I would've liked a little more warmth in No. 11, Pour les arpeges composees.
But the he ended with a supremely gorgeous final regard from Messian's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jesus, the Regard de l'Eglise d'amour. It's almost impossible to convey the release that has accumulated by that regard when the complete, two-hour cycle is performed, but his outsize performance came as close as is possible. If he ever performs the entire work, I'll make sure to attend.
He left the stage after his two encores, by Debussy and Shura Cherkassky, as quickly as he arrived, with more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere, it seemed. Oh, and he also did indeed look very gay, as another Chicagoan noticed.