By Sasha Margolis
For the first half of the twentieth century, the Frenchman Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) was one of the world’s most beloved violin soloists. He was a performer of unique and special gifts. “I pity all young violinists,” said his friend George Enescu, “who have not heard Thibaud—in their book of memories an irreplaceable image is lacking.” When he first heard Thibaud’s playing, Enescu recalled, “It took my breath away. I was beside myself with enthusiasm. It was so new, so unusual.”
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The recollections of the great pedagogue Carl Flesch match Enescu’s. Thibaud’s tone, he said, “fascinated the listener by its sweet and seductive color, literally unheard of at the time.” In fact, Thibaud, with his gorgeous vibrato and array of deeply expressive slides, joined Fritz Kreisler at the century’s outset in giving the world a newly sensuous ideal of violin tone. Kreisler is said to have called Thibaud “the greatest violinist in the world,” while Eugène Ysaÿe proclaimed: “There are two violinists from whose playing I can always be certain of learning something—Kreisler and Thibaud.”
Thibaud was born in Bordeaux and studied violin with his father there until the age of 13, when he enrolled in the studio of Martin Marsick at the Paris Conservatoire. (Enescu and Flesch were his studio mates.) At 18, Thibaud was playing in Paris’ Colonne Orchestra when the concertmaster fell ill. Young Jacques filled in on the solos for Saint-Saëns Le Déluge, creating a phenomenal sensation: he ended up soloing with the orchestra 54 times that season. In the next few years, Thibaud made debuts in London, Berlin, and New York. For the ensuing several decades, he was considered the French violinist.
Thibaud’s personality made an effect with or without the violin. American violinist Albert Spalding recalled that “he could tell tales with enthralling zest. The same grace and charm that individualized his 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.”
According to Pablo Casals, with whom he played in a superstar piano trio along with Alfred Cortot, “Thibaud hated work, rarely practiced, and had no sense of responsibility. He often behaved like a child—a naughty child. But he was wonderfully witty and gay… He loved practical jokes and had a remarkable inventiveness for them.”
For David Oistrakh, Thibaud was “not only an inspired artist. He was a man of crystalline honesty, quick-witted, charming—a real Frenchman. His performance was of heartfelt sincerity, optimistic in the best sense of the word…”
Thibaud suffered from terrible nerves—he reported having had several crying fits the day of his Deluge debut—and his playing declined considerably in later years. Flesch believed he had to “be heard in the flesh in order to be fully appreciated.” Nonetheless, many great Thibaud recordings exist, exhibiting his fascinating style.
On record, Thibaud’s intonation is pleasingly bright. His slides are of varied speed, and frequent—he is always ready to play a more difficult fingering to accommodate a slide. Though not a technician per se, he plays blazingly fast at times. His pizzicato is unusually expressive, his phrasing full of interior dynamics, and his performances full of constant moment-to-moment music-making. In fact, his recordings feel live.
Thibaud was a sparkling Mozart player, as witnessed by an A Major Sonata, K.526, with Marguerite Long; an A Major Concerto, with Munch; and perhaps best of all, the so-called Mozart Concerto no.6 in E-flat (now considered to have been composed by Johann Eck) with Sargent.
Not surprisingly, Thibaud also excelled in French sonata repertoire: his recording of the Fauré is gorgeously melodic, while in the finale of the Debussy, he finds expression in the scalar writing that many other interpreters overlook. His partner in both sonatas is Alfred Cortot. The trio recordings with Cortot and Casals, including Beethoven’s “Archduke,” Schubert’s B-flat D.898, Mendelssohn’s D minor, and Schumann’s D minor, are also uniformly magnificent.
Among Thibaud’s repertoire favorites were spicy numbers such as Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, recorded with Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse romande; Havanaise, with Tasso Janopoulo at the piano; and encores by Falla, Granados, and Albéniz. Finally, Thibaud’s charm, imagination, and spontaneity can all be heard in the Scherzando by his old teacher Marsick.