Harmonies poétiques et religieuses [First Version] – Invocation; Hymne de la nuit; Hymne du matin
Ballade slave; Nocturne; Tarantelle styrienne
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude [arr. Kocsis]; Liebestod [arr. Liszt]
Images – Book I
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Although he has performed in London on several occasions, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has only become familiar to a wider audience through his soon-to-be-completed Debussy intégrale on Chandos. Which composer featured prominently in this his Southbank debut recital, along with two of those whose influence on the French master must be as historically undeniable as it is aesthetically oblique.
Reversing the order of the first groups of pieces, seemingly on the spur of the moment, Bavouzet opened with three items from the first version of Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – ‘Invocation’ was spiritedly yet lucidly rendered, while the inward fervency of ‘Hymne de la Nuit’ made it conceivably a minor masterpiece, though not even Bavouzet’s poise could make ‘Hymne du matin’ more than a gauche curio such as the composer was surely right to discard from his second edition.
Three early pieces by Debussy reaffirmed Bavouzet’s identity with this music. Ballade slave is an unlikely yet highly appealing fusion of Schumannesque figuration with Tchaikovskian harmony, while the delectable Tarantelle styrienne was blithely dispatched, but the highlight was Nocturne – its enveloping texture and cadential tardiness a blueprint for Scriabin that the Russian composer could never have heard.
The first half ended with the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: the former heard in Zoltán Kocsis’s idiomatic transcription that Bavouzet did not quite bring off – the earlier stages, in particular, verged on the hectoring; the latter in Liszt’s reworking to which Bavouzet did greater justice, though whether the original can adequately be served by piano alone remains a moot point.
Bavouzet was back at something approaching his best in Book I of Debussy’s Images which opened the second half. Others may have found more sensuous elegance in the central section of ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, but few have drawn such sustained poignancy from ‘Hommage à Rameau’ (imagine any latterday composer recreating the idiom of a distant predecessor so totally in his own likeness), while the ebb and flow of ‘Mouvement’ had scintillating impact. So, too, did the ecstatic abandon of L’Isle joyeuse, even if Bavouzet could not resist a degree of over-emphasis in the uninhibited closing pages.
Playing to the galley is hardly an avoidable option throughout much of Liszt’s Grosses Konzertsolo – an extended fantasy to whose relatively well-defined formal structure Bavouzet brought no mean clarity, as well as finding a much-needed inwardness in the central section and an implacability in the ensuing funeral march (surely an inspiration to Alkan). Although the remainder was hardly lacking in virtuosity, even as resourceful an artist as Bavouzet cannot disguise that amid so much blood and thunder, Liszt’s chordally-derived melodic sequences do not in themselves make the strongest tunes!
Whatever its occasional disappointment, this was an auspicious showing for Bavouzet, and one looks forward to his returning to the Southbank Centre – perhaps with some Busoni (the Elegien and An die Jugend must surely be in his repertoire) and late Debussy. Speaking of which, he gave ‘Étude pour les arpèges composés’ – twelfth of the set – as an encore: one or two slips aside, its poise and lucidity was that of a pianist with whom to reckon.