Written by: Ben Hogwood
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has been recording the complete piano works of Claude Debussy for Chandos, and Volume 4 has just been acknowledged with a Gramophone Award (announced on Friday, 2 October), for best release in the ‘Instrumental’ category. However on meeting the pianist, it appears he has not yet left us his final recorded thoughts on the composer – and, as well as that, has many more irons in the fire in the recording studio.
When we meet it is in the back garden of his overnight base in London (Lady Solti’s home in fact, and much appreciated by the pianist) – for Monsieur Bavouzet has, the night before, performed Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall. He is still visibly buzzing from the experience.
“I can tell you I was very pleased to work with Mr Gergiev, who was actually very co-operative. We had very little rehearsal, it is true, and I was warned that. Luckily enough the Ravel concerto is a short piece, and is so well written that out of the eighteen minutes only ten are for piano and orchestra together. So considering the difficulties to put this concerto together, we had enough rehearsal.” He elaborates further. “It’s much better to have very effective short rehearsal with soloist and conductor, and to have a productive forty minutes rather than hours. It was new for me just to meet the orchestra and conductor on the day of the concert, but I think for me it went the best possible way, with a nice reaction from the public.”
Waxing lyrical already, he turns to the Concerto itself. “The piece is very strong, musically and in its intensity. It’s a dramatic piece, but not only that, it’s full of different aspects. Every time I prepare it I am amazed about the concision, the way the piece is formed. I think it’s a very important piece of this period, the fact that in a very condensed form, one movement lasting less than twenty minutes, everything is said. That’s why I think it’s an important piece; not only because of the pianistic challenge and that everything is so well written with one hand – all that is extra. Even on the pure musical point of view, the piece is about the sound before the creation, it comes from the creation to the deluge, like Noah and the flood in the Bible. The arch on this basis is really spectacular. And of course you don’t need to relate that every time, but the fact that it is almost a political gesture against the atrocity of the war makes it also strong. So I am always happy to play that concerto!”
Turning to Debussy, I enquire on the technical challenges specific to the composer’s piano writing. He becomes immediately more serious. “Oh yes, there are challenges, but they are very different to Ravel. Apart from the obvious show of pieces that Debussy wrote, there is a lot to challenge – the Études, ‘Mouvement’ from the first book of Images, L’Isle Joyeuse, the ‘Toccata’ (Pour Le Piano), Tarantelle Styrienne. Here there is virtuosity and a technical challenge that we are used to from Liszt onwards. But the other virtuosity needed for Debussy is something much more subtle, much more complex. I made a little text of it for my fifth Debussy album (to be released late in 2009), which is the one with the transcriptions. I was trying to make the people realise that this virtuosity is needed for the voice to be able to build several layers. Of course you could say that every pianist should do that, because you don’t find it in Debussy only, you find it of course in Chopin.” He stops to consider for a while. “Actually, the real polyphonic composers, I don’t think there are so many! I would say Chopin definitely, and Bach of course, but I could not consider Beethoven a real polyphonic composer, or even Haydn. Yet some composers, even if they don’t wish to, can write in the polyphonic way.”
Talking with intensity, he continues almost immediately. “Debussy is definitely one of them for me, and that’s a challenge that is less obvious but nevertheless difficult. It’s a more subtle control because it involves not only the muscular training but training of the ear, and of course concentration and control. I was trying to bring out something I learnt from Zoltán Kocsis, which is a little bit more accuracy rhythmically and precision in articulation and diction, and also in the spice of the tone, not only thinking of Debussy as pale and mellow – which I’m sure is not what he meant because we have some indication in the scores that goes completely away from that. Of course we find some doux, and trés doux, but we find violence as well, so if I wanted to be as precise, as defined as possible, this aspect of the different levels is important. I think in terms of layout like an orchestral score, to be able to follow lines simultaneously. This is the big challenge in this next volume of the series, and that’s a big challenge, even more than the virtuoso stuff.”
We move on to talk about the orchestral works, which the pianist has planned for the fifth album of his Debussy series for Chandos. He talks of their orchestral writing. “If you take a score like Jeux or La mer, where the strings are in fifteen different parts, you take out one and it sounds wrong. Balance is a big challenge in Debussy, and I think the same difficulty is there for the conductor and the pianist. Of course it is important in every composer, but sometimes in Debussy more than others.”
Bavouzet stops to pour coffee, the ideal host – and takes time to consider the big self-discovery that appears on the fifth disc. “It’s the transcription of the ballet Khamma that is the big discovery on this record, but it was my personal discovery of the emotional impact Debussy has had on me – that was quite a spectacular discovery, to be really, really moved by Debussy, which I was not before. It came to me very suddenly and abruptly, which really made me so completely addicted, like a drug. I can imagine the effect Wagner has on people like that – something you need every day, or you are not happy!”
He turns back to his find. “With Khamma, the piano transcription of it came to me by accident. I didn’t know so much of the score itself, but that happens! I thought I knew almost everything about Debussy but ‘Khamma’ escaped me. What I didn’t know was there was a piano transcription of it, and it made me completely rethink the composition of the fifth album, which was supposed to be just the first extra album to complete Le Boite à Joujoux. I was thinking of including the two-piano version of the four-hand piece Epigraphes Antiques, and then I realised when you go from four hands to two you can only restrain material, you cannot add! I was a little sceptical about it, and then I discovered Khamma.
The three ballets, then, were recorded at the same time. “For Jeux there is a two-piano version. I was planning to record this but when I saw the others I worked on Jeux for two hands. Debussy wrote a sketch but it’s not very complete, so I had to reorganise the text. I think this album is going to be a big surprise, it’s probably the one I’m most proud of, and after recording everything I don’t think anybody expected this!”
He goes on to discuss future plans. “In December and March we are planning with Chandos to record the three Bartók piano concertos, with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also the two Ravel concertos and Debussy Fantaisie, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Yan Pascal Tortelier.” Long term plans for Bavouzet include complete sonata cycles of Beethoven and Haydn – but not Mozart, as he explains. “I don’t play solo Mozart so much, I didn’t feel the balance as Maestro Solti did. I was playing the Mozart K491, the Piano Concerto No.24, with him once, and I realised then that Mozart is almost like a knife. If you give it a little less it sounds pale, a little too much and it sounds brittle, and for me I haven’t found it yet!”
He talks with markedly more enthusiasm of Mozart’s contemporary. “Haydn I find fascinating, you sight-read and say ‘Yes, okay’ but then you dig in and it’s a bottomless source of discovery. You begin to work and find infinite treasures. There is precise phrasing in the score but very little dynamic information, and in Haydn ornamentation is a very creative aspect also. I love the fact it makes the text personal to you. In Debussy I was trying to follow the text as much as possible, as I know the care and precision it took. You have to follow what is written in the score, and with Ravel it is the same. But in Haydn it is left to the interpretation of the player, and this aspect I enjoy very much. We speak now about eighteen or so CDs of cycles, and I’m not going to do those in six months! We have no absolute plans but I feel ready to move on step by step.”
Up until now Bavouzet has been very modest about winning the Gramophone Award, so I press him on what it means to him. He smiles broadly. “It is absolutely amazing. These four albums received distinction of this type, and for me it is a fantastic recognition. It would be hypocritical of me to say in this interview that I am thinking about future plans, but I am extremely happy to receive this award, especially coming from a country like England where you really have a strong relationship with music, which I find with a silence in the hall when I am performing. With musical life in France it is a different kind of attachment.”