Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas [Volume 1; Chandos]

0 of 5 stars

Piano Sonatas, Op.2 – in F minor; in A; in C
Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.7
Piano Sonatas, Op.10 – in C minor; in F; in D
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
Piano Sonatas, Op.14 – in E; in G
Presto in C minor, WoO52 [Original third movement discarded from Sonata, Op.10/1]
Prestissimo in C minor [Original finale, with longer development, of Sonata, Op.10/1, reconstructed by William Drabkin]

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Recorded between October 2008 and December 2011 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: September 2012
(3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 34 minutes



With good reason, Chandos is standing by its man Jean Efflam Bavouzet, the French pianist who has built up a wide-ranging discography, including Ravel, Debussy and Haydn. Despite the label’s existing Beethoven cycle with Louis Lortie, Chandos has produced its first Bavouzet volume of this music, which goes chronologically up to 1800.

I’d expected Bavouzet would reference to his ongoing hugely impressive Haydn series, but he plays up the differences of Beethoven’s style with exhilarating incisiveness. The Opus 2 set of three works may all be dedicated to Haydn (“Joseph Haydn gewidmet”), but, from the rocket-like opening of the First (in F minor), Bavouzet leaves you in no doubt that this is music with its sights firmly fixed on the nineteenth-century, reinforced by his use of a particularly vivid Steinway (he played a Yamaha for the Haydn).

Overall, Bavouzet’s phenomenally animated and articulated technique deals with all the details of Beethoven’s instructions with ease – phrasing, accents, dynamics and rhythm are impeccable, given further expression by Bavouzet’s intuitive feel for shades of colour, weight and rubato. Nothing is present for mannered effect, and his attention to the sonatas’ minutiae as well as their bigger picture gives these performances terrific immediacy.

The Opus 2 set makes its mark brilliantly – the Prestissimo finale of the First is driven by Bavouzet’s tirelessly rippling left-hand; the C major (No.3) is a particular delight with its elegantly crafted graceful rondo; and the slow movements define the performances’ scope and spirit.

If possible, Bavouzet is even better in the hugely demanding Opus 7, a grand sonata both in length and virtuosity, and he is completely up for the high-octane mood of the first movement and the otherworldly grace of the Largo. He finds a very different modus operandi in the ‘Pathétique’ – given with a fullness of tone and vision that honours Beethoven’s special relationship with the key of C minor.

The Opus 10 set is, by any standards, superb, edged-on by Bavouzet’s fierce musicianship and an ear constantly tuned into the surging momentum of their narrative. The music sounds newly minted – and Bavouzet’s interaction with the slow movement of No.3 (in D minor) is a masterpiece of refinement and fantasy.

The two smaller-scale Opus 14 sonatas are elegantly and affectionately played – you hardly ever hear them in a recital – and there are bonus tracks in the original third movement for Opus 10/1 (initially conceived in four) and the first version of the finale, as reconstructed by Beethoven scholar William Drabkin, who supplies an excellent, pithy booklet note. It’s right to break the strict sequence by placing the Opus 10 set together on one disc with the two grande sonates, Opuses 7 and 13, competing with each other in size and expression.

Bavouzet’s playing shines a light on the prodigious confidence and brilliance of these early (1793-98) works, all composed when Beethoven was in his early-twenties. It will be fascinating to hear what Bavouzet does with the middle-period ‘Waldstein’ and ‘Appassionata’ as well as the far-seeing late sonatas.

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