Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a busy recitalist; he plays more often abroad than in his native France. On Monday, a couple of weeks after his Ravel Left-Hand Concerto in London with Les Siècles, he was performing in Edinburgh's Queen’s Hall, this time alone. His programme consisted of two parts: first, sonatas by Beethoven and, after the interval, the French repertoire which made him famous. Bavouzet dedicated the evening to Zoltán Kocsis, the great pianist (and conductor) who died earlier this month. There is no doubt that Bavouzet himself is an amazingly great pianist, one who will influence generations of pianists to come. His recital was just pure delight, from first note to last.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Benjamin Ealovega
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Benjamin Ealovega

Unlike most sonatas, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in E minor Op.90 is constructed in only two movements. Even if the work is relatively short, it contains many interesting elements, including stylistic differences between the movements, and the complex architecture of the writing. The piece required a lot of energy, which was provided in the exact amount by Bavouzet, who used his absolutely irreproachable technique to infuse the appropriate expressivity into each sentence. As the music went by, it became obvious that nothing was left to chance. Bavouzet’s interpretation resulted from a very deep understanding of the sonata, both personal and faithful to its spirit.

With its strange, unsettling rhythms, its numerous off-beat accents and four-movement structure, Beethoven's next sonata (no. 28 in A major) was even more fascinating. Again, it was fascinatingly played. Instead of taming this twisted architecture, Bavouzet accentuated it, consciously revealing its exquisite, graceful, sublime infirmities. Needless to say, dynamics and playing modes – playing intentions to be more accurate – were as precise, as thoughtful, as well-crafted as before. After an impressive, energetic second movement, the third was extremely poetic. The finale was again full of vitality and virtuosity. However, even in very fast and difficult passages, Bavouzet always showed a great deal of mastery and cleverness (in a completely modest way), as if he never let the music overwhelm him. Rarely has a fugue been as elegant and witty as the one he played at the end of the sonata.

After the interval, Bavouzet came back on stage but did not immediately sit at the piano: he first talked about the works which were coming next, by Ravel and Debussy – a little speech very much appreciated by the audience, especially because Bavouzet explained his vision as an artist, avoiding to give only a dry musicological explanation. He then performed Ravel’s Miroirs, composed of five parts with evocative names (“Noctuelles”, “Oiseaux tristes”, “Une barque sur l’océan”, “Alborada del gracioso” and “La vallée des cloches”).

Bavouzet’s talent was already undeniable during the first part of the evening, but with Ravel, he reached an even higher level. His fingers actually seemed to produce a watery sound, with a palpable texture. This water was sometimes slippery, sometimes blurred, sometimes calm, sometimes splashing. One thing was certain – when Bavouzet plays, the expression “impressionist music” takes on a whole new meaning, much more magical, mysterious, mind-blowing. This contrasted with his Beethoven. The juxtaposition of the two was very interesting to consider. Bavouzet could create so many different sounds, colourful, changing in less than a second, than the piano was ever-changing into many instruments – a glockenspiel, a harp, a set of bells, or even plain hammers... it was just a delicious, never-ending succession of wave of ripples. What was most striking was the contradictory impression that the sound was completely spontaneous and perfectly structured at the same time. “La vallée des cloches” transported the audience elsewhere, to another world – maybe life after death, as Bavouzet suggested in his speech. This specific moment was literally breath-taking, a quasi-mystical meditation beyond the known.

Debussy's L’Isle joyeuse brought us back to life. And what a life! This time, we were surrounded by splashes of joy, of light, of laughter. The cherry on the cake (if there can still be one after all these beautiful renderings!) was his encore, Jeux d’eau: it is rare to say that, but in this case, Bavouzet truly reached perfection.