Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Haydn, Debussy & Bartók

Piano Sonata in C minor, Hob. XV1/20
Hommage à Joseph Haydn
Suite bergamesque – Clair de lune
Images, Set II – Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût
Préludes, Book II – La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
Jeux [arr. Bavouzet]
Eight improvisations on Hungarian peasant songs – No.7
Three Studies for Piano
Etudes – I: Pour les cinq doigts; II: Pour les tierces; IV: Pour les sixtes; VII: Pour les degrés chromatiques; X: Pour les sonorités opposes; XI: Pour les arpèges composes; V: Pour les octaves

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. ©J Henry-FairThe last time I heard the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet live was at this year’s BBC Proms, as soloist in a compelling performance of Bartók’s First Concerto. The same rhythmic tautness, exploratory attention to detail and expressive, wave-like energy came pouring out into this matinee recital. Bavouzet has embarked on recording for Chandos all of Haydn’s keyboard sonatas, which at last seem to be making their way on to the fixtures list of pianists’ programmes. The dark C minor gave us an idea of the quality of musicianship he brings to music that was nurtured by the mannerist High Baroque but by nature set its sights on the very different expressive needs of the Classical style.

It’s preferable, I suppose, for a listener to sit on the keyboard side for a piano recital, but it’s no less illuminating to see a pianist’s pedalling – and to hear the result. Bavouzet’s was faultlessly subtle, with a fortepiano-like deftness that gave a hint of roundness to the scrupulously observed phrasing. Silences play as important a part in Haydn’s limpid, carefully crafted expressive territory, and Bavouzet folded them into the music’s quiet but intense introspection to miraculous effect. In the slow movement he revealed his uncanny ability to open up the melodic cells so that they seem to accrue their own character, which is at the heart of the Classical ‘narrative’ style, a process that Bavouzet enabled here with such distinction.

He played the Haydn on a Yamaha, which was replaced by a Steinway for the rest of the programme. The clipped, bright sound of the former suited the self-contained Haydn, but there was no doubting the more expansive dynamism of the Steinway sound.Just to make clear the connection between Haydn and Debussy’s homage to him, Bavouzet bashed out with one finger the musical transcription of Haydn’s name (B, A, D, D, G), an unyielding motif that Debussy deconstructs into a short waltz. That link segued neatly into Debussy himself, with a group of moon-inspired pieces. Bavouzet’s ravishing performance of Clair de lune discreetly tugged at the veil of the sublime, at the same time as reminding us that the French world of impressions is a very precise art, more thoroughly examined in the Image and Prélude through Bavouzet’s extraordinary control of colour and suggestion of mood.

Ballet fans tell me that Jeux is not that frequently performed in a choreographed performance, although it crops up regularly in concerts. I’ve only seen it once – it starts with someone lobbing a tennis-ball onto the stage for a game between two women and a man – and, ever since, Debussy’s wonderful score has been inextricably linked with dance in a way that Stravinsky’s scores don‘t have to be. Bavouzet’s brilliant piano version is about as far from being a reduction of an orchestral score as you can get. It captures the music’s lithe, rhythmic surge and percussive possibilities, and Bavouzet’s performance turned the spotlight on its balletic gestures, leading us to the point where the playful veneer of a game of tennis blossoms, if that’s the word, into something quite ferocious and erotic.

Colour, rhythm and propulsive force were much harder and incisive in the Bartók, which stretched even Bavouzet’s considerable reserves of stamina and defined the different sort of physicality this music demands. He was at the top of his virtuosic, interpretive game in the group of Debussy Studies, which, as with Chopin, took the didactic nature of digital improvement into another realm altogether.Apart from his phenomenal but understated technique, Bavouzet has in addition an extraordinary ability to seem to be directing his own performances, as though he’s providing a presence outside himself, and it goes some way to explaining the fierce passion, remarkable intelligence and free-wheeling creativity of his transcendent playing.

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