A four-hour afternoon concert of one man playing piano music by Debussy was not a sufficiently daunting prospect to deter a full house. Indeed, time seemed to fleet by, and it was not quite as concentrated as that might sound. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet not only engaged and entertained from the piano, but did so through a charming flow of informative comment to the audience on all things pertaining to the works performed and their composer. Debussy’s piano pieces are mostly very short, but they are extremely varied in tone, mood, and colour, and there were two intervals to gather one’s thoughts and responses. Bavouzet himself showed remarkable stamina, seeming as fresh at the end as at the start, and never once resorting to a page of music.

The program was organised more or less chronologically, from early works to later masterpieces. Beginning with the Ballade of 1891, perhaps more obviously melodic than some of the later works, this was played gently but not quietly, the rippling effect looking forward to the perhaps more impressionistic works relating to the movements of wind and water. One noted here the delicate and necessary control of the dynamics, also quickly apparent in the next piece, the Nocturne (1892), with its alternating increasing and decreasing intensity. The contemporary Tarantelle styrienne hints at more modern ideas, with its excitingly rendered wild dance moves.

The next bracket comprised Arabesque no. 1, Images oubliées, Clair de lune and L'isle joyeuse, bringing us into the 20th century. Here one can single out Quelques aspects de “Nous n’irons plus au  bois” parce qil fait un temps insupportable, very nimble and playful, with a ferocious bell tolling at the end. The ever-familiar Clair de lune was completely transporting, played with refined transparency. L’isle joyeuse, believed to allude to a painting by Watteau, was composed while Debussy was on a sort of pre-honeymoon with his future wife, and was played with rollicking good humour but with notes of longing and passion; at the end, Bavouzet finished the final arpeggio by spinning off his stool and on to his feet to receive warm applause.

After the first interval, the next session included Images Book I, Préludes Book I (three selections), and selections from the Études of 1915. Bavouzet introduced this section by suggesting that here we move into the realm of masterpieces: now the piano becomes like an orchestra, with deeper layers. Having earlier talked about Debussy “escaping” from Wagner, here he described him as “escaping gravity – taking Tristan up the nose”, and acting out this image with finally flinging Tristan into space

The Images included a very slow but involving Hommage à Rameau (I am still trying to identify what theme of Rameau’s is involved – it is said to be inspired by Castor et Pollux), followed by the contrastingly louder and faster Mouvement. The items from Préludes Book 1 (1907-10) comprised two big hits, La Fille aux cheveux de lin and La Cathedrale engloutie along with Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. The first was described by Bavouzet as “simple”, but with an undertow of irony in his voice. The wonderful imagery of the drowned cathedral was perfectly conveyed, with its loud and smaller bells.

As Bavouzet had also pointed out, it would be a mistake to take the Études as mere exercises, but one suspects that anyone who every played them (and one would also expect that a lot of piano players of one sort or another were in the audience) would know. The first, Pour les cinq doits d’après Monsieur Czerny was performed very playfully, provoking loud laughs. Pour les tierces produced a very dramatic hand flourish at its powerful conclusion, contrasting with the gentle end of Pour les sixtes. Pour les degré chromatiques  displayed some very nifty fingering, and Pour les sonorités opposes (described by Bavouzet as the most important if wrongly titled), where the  “trumpet theme” did indeed almost brassily ring out. The final Pour les octaves, with its rolling arpeggios and accelerating finale led into even warmer applause before the second interval.  

All twelve Préludes of Book 2 comprised the final section of the program. Bavouzet sailed through without a hint of fatigue, bringing out the many moods and textures, the somewhat abstract depictions of Brouillards and Bruyères, the habanera rhythm of La Puerta del Vino, the cakewalk of Général Lavine (eccentric), the rippling water of Ondine, the (deliberately) heavy handed rendition of God Save the King/Queen in the Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. and its more playful side, and the pianistic fireworks of Feux d’artifice concluding the event. A standing ovation ensued.