Jean-Yves Thibaudet finds an ideal partner in Midori: ‘We influence each other’

By any measure, Jean-Yves Thibaudet ranks among the most acclaimed pianists of his time, but you won’t find him singing his own praises. All the French pianist will acknowledge is that he has reached a point in his four-decade career where he has the luxury of focusing exclusively on the artistic undertakings that are compelling and important to him.

“All the projects I’m doing now were either dreams that I’ve had for many years but didn’t have time to do or didn’t have the opportunity,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “They are just things that excite me and I enjoy doing. That’s beauty of it. I can kind of choose a direction, and that’s a great privilege. I feel very happy about that.”

Among those projects is continuing his longtime emphasis on duo collaborations with major singers and instrumentalists, who have included notables such as soprano Renée Fleming, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and violinist Joshua Bell. One of his longest and most enduring artistic partnerships has been with a fellow Frenchman, cellist Gautier Capuçon. “I love it,” Thibaudet said of the duo appearances. “I want to always continue doing it. It’s always something that has given me lots of pleasure.”

Another of his regular collaborators is violinist Midori, with whom he will appear Oct. 23 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music series. One of the most celebrated child prodigies of the last half-century, Midori, now 51, managed to transition successfully into a top-level adult career. Indeed, in 2020, she became one of the youngest artists ever to be honored at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Thibaudet, 61, had long admired Midori and was friends with her. However, the two had never worked together until four years ago, when the violinist proposed a recital program that included George Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Minor (1926), one of the Romanian composer’s most popular work. Thibaudet calls it “absolutely amazing,” and it helped to persuade him to take on the collaboration. “She asked me if I would learn that piece, and I said, ‘I will. It’s a dream of mine. I love that piece.’ ” The two toured the program internationally in 2018-19 and performed it in Bucharest at the Enescu Festival. 

“After that, we were chatting, and we said we would love to do more together,” he said. “We really had an amazing not only musical but also intellectual connection. There’s something very specific about the way we discuss music, the way we rehearse. There’s something very unique with her.”

“Each one complements the other, and we learn from each other. It’s really been a fascinating collaboration.” — Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Midori

Thibaudet admitted that two might not seem at first like ideal artistic partners because of their “very different” personalities; she's more workmanlike and structured, and he's more flamboyant and carefree. “But somehow when we’re together, there is something that we create together that is maybe complementary,” he said. “Maybe that’s the thing, each one complements the other, and we learn from each other. It’s really been a fascinating collaboration.”

Ahead of what was supposed to be a worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, Midori proposed learning and recording all 10 of the composer’s violin sonatas, which were written from 1798 through 1812. “I said, ‘Well, that’s a big pill to swallow. Let me think about it.’ ” Beethoven was a virtuoso pianist, so it is not surprising that the piano parts for these sonatas are what Thibaudet describes as “humongous.” “Some of them are just like piano concertos,” he said. “The piano parts are as difficult, demanding and important. It’s a huge undertaking for the pianist.” 

He wanted to mark the Beethoven anniversary in some way, and rather than present the complete piano sonatas or concertos for the occasion, he realized that the violin sonatas might be the perfect approach. The two played through a few of them, and the pianist agreed to take on the challenge. “I have to say, it has changed my life as a musician, and it has enriched my life,” he said. “Beethoven is one of the most incredible composers. There is a nobility and humanity about his music, something that makes you reflect, especially during the time of the pandemic. It was a very special moment, and now, we have been living with them for two years.”

The two first performed the complete set of violin sonatas in January and February 2020 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., and then subsequent performances had to be canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 shutdown. Since then, they have recorded all the Beethoven Violin Sonatas for Warner Classics, just finishing the final editing in September. In Chicago, they will present the Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2; Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 3, and Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 4 (Kreutzer).

“It’s been a journey that was amazing,” Thibaudet said. “I’m so happy, so grateful that I could do it and that she wanted me to do it with her, and that we’ve shared all this time together. I admire Midori as an artist, because it’s more than professional. She is dedicated. Whatever she does, whatever she takes on, she will do it with 200 percent of her attention and hard work. She’s completely in it.” 

All that preparation is paying off in the performances, because it allows the two musicians to feel freer onstage. They can respond in the moment. “We influence each other,” he said. “She will do something, and I will answer her. It’s like a Ping-Pong game. You send the ball, and the ball comes back to you. And now, we can have fun with it. It’s tremendous.”