Cedric Tiberghien is a familiar figure to New Zealand concert audiences. When he joins Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra on Thursday for the final instalment of its 2016 NZ Herald Premier series, it will be his third appearance with the orchestra.
On his first visit, in 2009, the French pianist performed a spine-tingling Ravel concerto; returning two years later playing Brahms, he brought a distinctly Gallic sensibility and poise to what are essentially two nocturnes nestling in the Andante of the German composer's Second Concerto.
His main concern with tackling Brahms was preserving stamina. An enthusiastic jogger, he stressed the need to measure one's energies so the music remained fresh right through to the runaway finale.
"It has to be like spring," was his explanation. "Full of fresh air, green leaves and little birds."
In 2009, he professed affection for the mainstream German repertoire, despite carrying off first prize in the most celebrated of French competitions, the Long-Thibaud, in 1998. Above all, he was determined not to be trapped in the music of his own country. "I played so much as a teenager, I didn't want to be put into a compartment as a French pianist who only played French music," he told me.
"I'm very curious and even if I can't play everything I love, I decided to stop doing French music for a while." Since then, Tiberghien has once more embraced the music of his homeland. Next week, we'll hear him in Camille Saint-Saens' final piano concerto while the orchestra, under Japanese conductor Kazuki Yamada, frames it with Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.
The Ravel connection is a nice touch as the composer of Bolero was a great admirer of Saint-Saens. Seven years ago, Tiberghien enthused about the "wonderful clarity" of Ravel's concerto and how it needed to be "played with the chiselled perfection of diamonds". One can only assume he'll be taking a similar approach on Thursday.
Saint-Saens' Egyptian Concerto was written in 1898 to mark its composer's debut as a concert pianist 50 years before, at the age of 11. It was a recital at which the young prodigy offered to reel off any Beethoven sonata the audience might choose - from memory - by way of an encore.
Perhaps the composer of the popular Organ Symphony and Carnival of the Animals didn't help himself by likening his compositional methods to apples dropping off trees. Saint-Saens has too often been slated for his superficiality and glittering surfaces with little substance underneath them.
Yet Ravel was a devout admirer, upsetting Poulenc by elevating Saint-Saens to genius status. Saint-Saens was the model for his own piano concertos as "the music of a concerto should be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects."
These are words that well describe the , its nickname derived because it was composed in Egypt during one of Saint-Saens' regular North African retreats from the rigours of European winters.
Frankly pictorial, you'll experience everything from the clear and brilliant light of an Egyptian dawn to frogs croaking in the Nile. The work's final movement, inspired by the machinery of a ship's propellers, is an elegant marriage of the French salon, American ragtime and piquant picture postcard exoticism with one outburst of startling primitivism - a challenge that Cedric Tiberghien will relish.