Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Beethoven’s last three Piano Sonatas – Opuses 109, 110 & 111

Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 January, 2016
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Jean-Efflam BavouzetPhotograph: Benjamin EalovegaThe current refurbishment of the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall has meant this season’s International Piano Series being transferred in part to St John’s Smith Square, not a venue always well regarded for its overly sympathetic acoustic in terms of a piano.

Which factor could have been uppermost on Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s mind when beginning this recital devoted to Beethoven’s final three Piano Sonatas. Not that one expects supine understatement from this most probing and capricious of pianists, but Opus 109’s first movement was rendered with a brittleness and archness such as did scant justice to the poetic depths behind its outward elegance. The Scherzo went better, Bavouzet alive to its extremes of aggression and inwardness, for all that the latter phrase of its main theme proved fallible on each occasion. And while the expansive Finale duly capped the work, there was restiveness in the unfolding of its double variations – the last of them less than ecstatic despite (or because of) some scintillating pianism – that sold short the music’s profound eloquence.

Returning after a brief pause, Bavouzet sounded appreciably more at ease in Opus 110 – not least an opening movement whose often improvisatory lightness belies its stealthy re-making of sonata-form principles. Nor was anything much at fault in the Scherzo, its trenchant main theme adroitly contrasted with its gently sardonic Trios; the whole a telling instance of just how contemporary Beethoven still sounds today. The Finale was more problematic, though Bavouzet set a convincing tempo for its sombre introduction such as joined seamlessly into the first phase of the arioso dolente, prior to an initial fugal section that lacked nothing in breadth. Yet the reprise of the arioso felt too hasty, then the crescendoing chordal sequence following it too precipitous – for the full majesty of the climactic fugal section to come across.

If each account being more successful than that previously is a fault, it is assuredly one in the right direction. Bavouzet was in control of Opus 111 right from the outset – the first movement’s glowering introduction made powerful leverage into an Allegro whose rhythmic precision was never at the expense of that energy which carries this music to its questioning close. Bavouzet might have sustained its last chord more audibly into the ‘Arietta’ second movement, but thereafter he rendered the temporal proportions between variations with absolute consistency – bringing the requisite verve to the third of them and opening-out the formal process so that the music’s destination felt beyond reach until the benedictory closing bars: music accessing an inner calm, of which Bavouzet (if not at least one member of the audience) was keenly aware.

A fine conclusion, then, to an engrossing if sometimes frustrating recital. On returning to the platform, Bavouzet explained he had not intended an encore were it not for the recent death of Pierre Boulez, with whom he had enjoyed a productive association in the composer-conductor’s later years. He then played three (VII, VIII & IX) of Boulez’s Notations – perfectly realised miniatures by someone in their late teens and already of exceptional promise – here making for an unlikely though appropriate tribute such as effortlessly linked one musical visionary with another.

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