Jean-Yves Thibaudet's 2007 release Aria: Opera without Words is exactly what it says it is: a recital of popular arias arranged for piano. Following in the tradition of Thibaudet's earlier discs of Bill Evans and Duke Ellington arranged for piano, Aria is long on virtuosity and short on sensitivity. As before -- and as in his "straight" classical recordings of Ravel and Debussy -- Thibaudet's virtuosity is breathtaking. Beyond impeccable passagework and immaculate double octaves, Thibaudet's control of the instrument is complete: every phrase, every chord, every note is played exactly as it ought to be played with precisely the right amount of attack, pressure, and release. And as before -- but not as in his "straight" classical recordings -- Thibaudet's sensitivity is negligible. Beyond a lot of rubato and plenty of exaggerated dynamics, Thibaudet's interpretations are full of swaying and swooning and to-ing and fro-ing that altogether amount to not much more than hyperactive sentimentality. Part of the reason for this, of course, is built into the repertoire -- these are opera arias on the program, after all, with not one, not two, but three arrangements of Puccini included -- and part of the reason is written into the arrangements -- although Giovanni Sgambati's arrangement of the "Mélodie" from Orphée et Eurydice is fairly restrained, Yvar Mikhashoff's arrangements, especially his "Casta diva" from Norma, are fairly uninhibited. But most of it is Thibaudet's inclination toward pianistic histrionics, for pulling back from intimacy and rushing headlong into climaxes, that makes his playing resemble a higher-toned Liberace or a less comedic Chico Marx. While certainly enjoyable as exercises in virtuosity taken one or two or even three at a time, listening straight through to a whole disc of what are essentially encores is aurally and aesthetically unadvisable. Decca's digital sound makes Thibaudet's piano sound big and close, but too clattery at climaxes.
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AllMusic Review by James Leonard
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