One hundred years to the day since Debussy died “Pour le piano” was a nearly day-long exploration of his piano music. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet offered three recitals interwoven with scene setting discussions with the eminent scholar of French music of the era, Roger Nichols. But Nichols was unwell, and was replaced at very short notice by Barbican classical music programmer Paul Keane. He in turn had the great sense simply to ‘interview’ Bavouzet, mostly tossing the pianist an intelligent cue to set him off reflecting on his compatriot’s epoch-defining art. Which Bavouzet duly did with charm, wit and insight, occasionally putting down the microphone to illustrate a point at the keyboard. The only ghost of the planned approach were the slides shown during these interviews, all of the composer at periods contemporary with the music being discussed, but which went unremarked throughout.

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

In Part One, Bavouzet focussed on the earlier piano works in which Debussy was finding his voice, such as the Ballade or Tarantelle. This provided the opportunity for an amusing game of influence-hunting, whether in the direction of the Russians (in the 7/4 passage in the 1892 Nocturne), Erik Satie, or, inevitably, Richard Wagner – later Bavouzet had great fun pointing out at the keyboard the various occasions when Debussy teasingly invoked or rewrote the opening of Tristan. Even the ubiquitous Clair de lune, played with beguiling simplicity, became fresh again in this context.

And we had a delightfully related reminiscence from Bavouzet’s long association with Pierre Boulez, to the effect that the Arabesque no.1, of all pieces, was a particular Boulez favourite. But if that piece evoked the salon, we ended firmly in the concert hall. This first part culminated in L’Isle joyeuse, which Bavouzet descried as a “concert piece, because the audience knows when to clap” (unlike the many works which evaporate quietly). It was played with great flair, and real spontaneity in the warm rubato with which the central melody stole in. If there was some slightly splashy playing in the final pages (and in what live performance is there not?), this was because of the excitingly swift tempo, and the ecstatic, all flags flying manner of the climax – joyeuse indeed.

Part Two opened with the first book of Images, of which the first (Reflets dans l’eau) is one of the most evocative of Debussy’s water pieces. Bavouzet has a sublime touch for the deliquescent manner of passages such as the opening of this Image, which rippled seamlessly. But he also emphasised – once more in discussion and then in playing – the huge dynamic range in Debussy’s piano music. The close of Hommage à Rameau is, we learned, the only occurrence in all Debussy’s music of a pppp marking. Fortunately the splendid and well-prepared piano and the Milton Court Hall acoustic (both praised by Bavouzet) allowed us actually to hear such nuances. Bavouzet recalled that when Debussy heard the aged Liszt play, he was amazed at the quality of his soft playing, then quoted a contemporary critic of Debussy’s playing, “a good pianist but no-one beyond the fifth row will hear him”.

Certainly the selection from Book One of the Préludes showed Bavouzet’s dynamic range. In La Cathédrale engloutie the muffled bells tolled very softly but the central climax swelled with an organ-like volume, while in Ce qu’à vu le vent d’Ouest Bavouzet became a French Prospero, conjuring terrifying tempests from the keyboard. The Études closed this second part of the day, and Bavouzet had much fun in No.1, Pour les cinq doigts, impersonating a bored pupil suffering five-finger exercises and relieving the tedium by adding incongruous notes. (Debussy and humour was the subject of another disquisition). The pianist made light of the technical difficulties because as he said “they are so short”. Even shorter when taken at some of Bavouzet’s tempi, but he still rose to the demands of each one in this generous selection.

Selection is distortion though when it comes to the Préludesince Debussy took such pains over the sequence of them, so for Part Three we had the whole of Book Two, preceded by a discussion but thereafter uninterrupted. In La puerta del vino, Bavouzet relished the composer’s injunction to juxtapose “extreme violence and passionate tenderness” and in Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses he controlled the long trills like some pirouetting fairy. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune was as mysterious as its title, and Feux d’artifice was a dazzling pianistic fireworks display. We heard spectacular playing throughout the day, but with the whole unbroken sequence of this book of Préludes our musical engagement was sustained and cumulative, making a brilliant conclusion to our Hommage. What a great composer, and what a great advocate for his genius.

*****