Jacques Thibaud, whose gifts as an interpreting artist brought him many friends and admirers, is often considered the foremost representative of the modern Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. According to Flesch, ‘his playing was imbued with his yearning for sensual pleasure, with an unchastity that was all the more seductive for its refinement.’ The rather more conservative Albert Spalding, at whose wedding Thibaud performed, said: ‘The same grace and charm that individualized his violin playing was evident in everything else he undertook. He was irresistible to women, young and old, and was as proud of this power as he was modest about his musical genius.’
Born into a musical family (his father a violinist and music teacher), Thibaud made his public piano debut aged five. Two years later, having heard Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, he insisted on violin lessons. Ysaÿe (who later dedicated his Sonata No. 2 for solo violin to Thibaud) heard him when he was nine and encouraged him, probably leading to his entering the Paris Conservatoire to study with Martin Marsick. He continued with Marsick after graduating and evidently held him in great renown: ‘With him I believe that three essentials—absolute purity of pitch, equality of tone and sonority of tone, in connection with the bow—are the base on which everything else rests.’
After finishing his training and while earning a living playing at the Café Rouge in Paris, Thibaud was heard by conductor Édouard Colonne who offered him a job in his popular orchestra. When deputising for the leader in 1898, Thibaud was so well received that he was able to leave the orchestra to pursue a solo career. His London debut under Sir Henry Wood led to his frequent return there, becoming a favourite of English audiences; he was equally successful in Germany (1901) and America (1903, Carnegie Hall). Thibaud had played in a piano trio with his two brothers with limited success, but his partnership with pianist Alfred Cortot and cellist Pablo Casals became internationally known as one of the greatest combinations of musical talent ever heard and was constantly in demand, several of their recordings—particularly the Beethoven ‘Archduke’—becoming gramophone classics.
A different facet to Thibaud’s French spirit proved itself during World War II when he served in the Resistance. He continued playing into his seventies when, in 1953, he died in an aeroplane crash in the French Alps on his way to a concert, his 1720 Stradivarius violin perishing with him.
He believed that music should distract the listener from everyday life and refrain from depicting its ugliness and realism, commenting: ‘People do not want to have their miseries and worries reflected in music; they want to get away from them.’ He also had strong views on programming, objecting to piano transcriptions of Beethoven trios (‘The last thing in the world to play!’) and slating Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto: ‘I consider it the worst thing the composer has written.’
The matter of bowing and how it is taught also came under scrutiny: ‘The bow must be used in an absolutely natural way, and over elaboration in explaining what should be a simple and natural development often prevents the student from securing a good bowing.’
Thibaud’s playing evidences a tone that has become synonymous with French style. Many of his earlier recordings in particular show use of the so-called French portamento, or what Carl Flesch described as an ‘L’ (or ‘leaving finger’) slide where, especially ascending, the finger approaching the upper note slides on to the note from below. This was disliked by German players of the late nineteenth century and held by many to be theoretically reprehensible. It can be heard at work in Thibaud’s performance of Debussy’s La Fille aux cheveux de lin (1927), as well as in an exquisite recording of Fauré’s Berceuse, Op. 16 from 1931. He is more restrained in using this slide in German Classical repertoire, as in the famous Beethoven ‘Archduke’ Trio with Cortot and Casals from 1928 or the equally renowned 1929 recording of Brahms’s Double Concerto, also with Casals and with Cortot conducting. It can still be heard later in his career in the first movement cadenza of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G major, recorded in 1951. Equally distinctive is his vibrato: narrow and fast by modern standards but wholly natural in its effect, which one associates very much with early twentieth-century French sound. Unlike many players whose vibrato deteriorated in later life, Thibaud maintained great control over the device.
Apart from the Mozart concerto and Beethoven ‘Archduke’ Trio, in which Thibaud’s sensuous tone creates a compelling contrast to Casals’s rough-hewn cello playing, it seems appropriate to include Fauré’s Violin Sonata, Op. 13 (1927) and Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1929). Here Thibaud’s distinctively French sound and liveliness of bearing are lent especial authenticity in works with which he is rightly associated, his dazzling and heroic sound suitably counterpoised by Cortot’s equally flamboyant (if occasionally wayward) pianism. Thibaud, like Ysaÿe, was fond of nineteenth-century tempo flexibility and a free approach to notated rhythms, features that are especially fitting and evident throughout these fine performances.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)