Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano: Works by Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy, Playhouse, April 2, 2017.

A number of years ago, I thought that pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet displayed sufficiently great artistry, imagination, and technical address that I used the title ‘The Pianist for this Decade’ in one of my concert reviews. I was not alone in praising the pianist, but sometimes one has difficulty supporting such bold statements. Fortunately, not this time. A wide-ranging concert of Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy proved quite as magnificent as the pianist’s last appearance, and I would be hard pressed to say that I have seen a much better recital. Bavouzet always seems to bring such fresh energy and concentration to whatever he touches, but it his uncanny ability to put his finger on what really drives a piece – and reveals its intellectual and emotional harmony – that gives his efforts a genuine stamp of originality.  True, the pianist has immense virtuoso skills that can spring to life in a second, is tonally sophisticated and beautiful, and pedals with great cunning, yet it is his intellectual penetration that I find most compelling.  This was evident in the first half of this concert, where the structural characteristics of Haydn’s early A flat major Sonata were intriguingly integrated with those of the first two of the Beethoven Sonatas, Op. 10. A quite different style fits Ravel’s Miroirs, but the insight into this work later in the concert was as complete, with riveting naturalistic portrayals bringing out the virtuoso character of the pieces.

Bavouzet has been working through his widely-praised volumes of both the Haydn and Beethoven sonatas for Chandos, so his success in this repertoire comes as no surprise. The concert began with Haydn’s Sonata No. 31, a relatively early work (1767) that, by all rights, should not achieve the stature of the composer’s last efforts in the genre.  Yet Bavouzet brought much more to it, exposing its full range of complexity and compelling logic of development.  The structural clarity and crispness of Bavouzet’s opening Allegro was a delight, and the way the pianist moved through its angular statements, caprice, and flights of imagination was fully involving. The sense of anticipation created was tangible: the listener could only imagine what trick Haydn might try next! The contrasting slow movement was lovely, having a sense of endless space and a tender lyrical reach, though the pianist never let its moments of quirkiness go unnoticed.  There was all the fun there should be in the Presto finale, full of animation and exploring an unusual variety of tonal weights at its hectic speed.  There was nothing remotely inflated about this treatment: it seemed completely fresh and, indeed, a very earnest attempt to probe all that this sonata had to offer. Ornamentation was judicious and the cadenzas were by the artist himself, a practice that also extended to the Beethoven sonatas. 

One might expect an inseparable tie between Beethoven’s early Op. 10 sonatas of 1798 and the sonata form tradition of Haydn.  The pianist attempted to give more concrete meaning to this link by narrowing in on a sub-genre of three-movement sonatas common to both composers.  As with the Haydn performed, each of these lasts under 20 minutes and all balance substantial wit with warm repose while exhibiting strong closing energy. Beethoven’s first two Op. 10 sonatas are quite unique in their three-movement design: all preceding Beethoven sonatas have four movements, as does Op. 10, No. 3. Beethoven truly sounds like Beethoven in the pianist’s hands, and I enjoyed Bavouzet’s additional robustness and sense of cunning in the later composer. Nonetheless, it was the demonstration of how both composers shared the common commitment to this sub-genre that was additionally enriching. 

The combination of cogency and caprice in the opening Allegro of Op. 10, No 1 now seemed very familiar, and I was impressed with how fluently the pianist balanced its more ardent and playful elements with a deeper lyrical response.  It is the latter that flowers in the long cantabile lines of the Adagio, set down here with great feeling, yet the corresponding Haydn slow movement remained in the memory, as did the rollicking energy of the closing Prestissimo. The wit that Bavouzet caught in the almost quizzical opening of Op. 10, No.2 was charming, and his interpretation again moved forth with superb balance and continuity: sometimes dramatic, sometimes musing, sometimes almost improvisatory.  The pianist displayed great tonal precision and rhythmic acuity throughout, but it was the sheer character in his playing, and his consistent recognition of small transitory beauties, that made things so fresh and immediate.

After the pianist’s award-winning traversal of the complete piano music of Debussy for Chandos and his earlier Ravel cycle, one would think that his performance of these composers in the second half might move us even closer to the pianist’s fundamental spirit.  In my previous interview, Bavouzet revealed that this is not exactly so.  As he stated: “… the fact is that I was not interested in sound production during my study as a young pianist. I was not interested in beautiful sound at all … or Debussy at all.  I played some of his music, but not very well.  It was only very much later – in in my mid-thirties – that I really fell in love with the music of this composer. “   In fact, it was the study of Beethoven and Bartók that preoccupied the artist first.

Be that as it may, the Ravel Miroirs featured an absolutely scintillating display of colour and natural virtuosity.  I enjoyed the clarity and the sense of distilled complexity in Noctuelles, the gradations of repose and telling space in Oiseaux Tristes, but it was the famous Une Barque sur l’Ocean and Alborada del Gracioso that set the seal on this recital, opening up a whole different experience for the audience.  The waves in the former were portrayed so graphically that they literally flowed off the stage, and the combination of strong dynamics, colour and virtuoso élan in the Alborada was almost difficult to believe. And all so exactly and cleanly articulated: this would have made the evening by itself.  Debussy’s enticing L’isle joyeaux closed the concert while a sparkling account of Gabriel Pierné’s Étude de concert, Op. 13 served as the encore.

This was a superlative recital, encompassing an intellectually-rich and beautifully articulated study in classical forms to begin and closing with pianism that literally lit our senses on fire. I don’t think one can ask for anything more!


© Geoffrey Newman 2017