I have been enjoying Bavouzet’s well deserved rise as both a concert performer and prolific recording artist for a number of years now. Tonight’s recital demonstrated once again his commanding presence as a performer, as well as a highly intelligent approach to programming, creating thought-provoking connections between composers and their compositions.

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

Bavouzet’s Beethoven might emphasise the percussive more than some would like, and occasionally in the intimate acoustic of the Wigmore Hall, this felt almost aggressive at times. But this sense of attack is there in the music, and is often avoided by less courageous pianists in favour of a more comfortable interpretation. The context of the other works in the programme also made perfect sense of this approach to the music.

In the sometimes-overlooked Piano Sonata no. 22 in F major, Op.54, the key is the contrast between the gentle minuet theme and the turbulent outbursts of octave triplets that interrupt the minuet twice, before the minuet theme is then further embellished and ornamented.  For the final statement of the theme, the left hand takes on the triplet rhythm, albeit subdued, so it is hard to decide which idea has ‘won’. Bavouzet’s uncompromising approach is perfect and highlights this contrast expertly. In the second movement, he clearly enjoyed the interplay between the two hands, and managed to achieve clarity of rhythmic pulse, whilst relishing Beethoven’s constant attempts to confuse the ear with offbeat sforzandi and syncopations.  

This set the stage well for Op.57, the “Appassionata”. Once again, Bavouzet’s focus here was on rhythmic precision – so often pianists take the “Appasionata” tag as permission to take an overly free, romantic approach to this sonata, but not so Bavouzet. He allowed the passion to come from the drama of the writing, rather than imposing any extremes of interpretation. A rather long resonance on the low bass F slightly obscured the pianissimo close to the first movement, but I wonder if this was partly to set up the slightly sombre, lower register statement of the second movement’s theme, although here again some of the low harmonies of the initial variations were a little blurred. However, with Beethoven’s successive use of division in the variations, increasing the rhythmic pulse, combined with rising registers, the final variation had a rippling, almost Schubertian feel. Bavouzet returned to rhythmic and percussive attack for the finale, and then a rather frenzied accelerando into the final Presto for a whirlwind finish. 

Le livre de Jeb was composed in 2009 for Bavouzet by his friend, the composer Bruno Mantovani, Director of the Paris Conservatoire. The piece is a tour de force, making use of the full range of the keyboard, with rapid figuration, sudden leaps and harsh dissonances. However, despite the overtly percussive nature of the piece, there is a persistent simple rocking chord motif that opens the piece and is gradually surrounded by more and more embellishments and technical antics. The chord motif returns throughout, and according to the composer, it is based on a chord in his piano quintet, which Bavouzet particularly responded to when he first heard it. The technical aspects of the piece make good use of Bavouzet’s percussive attack, and it proved a captivating way to end the first half of his recital. 

After the interval, the rationale behind Bavouzet’s clever programming became ever clearer, with Ravel’s Miroirs picking up on the themes of rhythmic complexity and a focus on the percussive use of the instrument. The fluttering “Noctuelles” (Night moths) were suitably dark and moody, with a fragile, glassy texture and the “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad birds) continued the dark atmosphere, with Bavouzet capturing the improvisatory feel beautifully with warmth of tone and a particularly ethereal pianissimo. “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean) rocked and swirled, with effortlessly natural waves rising to a rich sonorous climax. The dramatically exotic seguidilla of “Alborada del gracioso” (Morning song of the jester), with its ringing rapidly repeated notes (a link with the Mantovani we heard earlier), surrounded touching simplicity in the copla. Finally, Bavouzet imbued the romantic central melody of “La vallée des cloches” (The valley of bells) with affecting beauty amidst the tolling bells. 

All the sensitivity of texture and subtlety of mood was instantly swept aside however with the final work, Bartók’s Piano Sonata.  Here, percussion is all, and the rhythmic drive of the opening movement was brutally shocking in its relentlessness. There isn’t much let up in the second movement either, although Bavouzet managed to allow slight elements of lyricism to seep out through the harsh contrapuntal structures.  There is something inherently violent in the slow, relentless crescendi here, and violence was definitely evident in Bavouzet’s attack in the final movement, the deceptively folky feel barely containing the aggression that bursts through with the stabbing chord-clusters. This was one of those performances that leaves you slightly shell-shocked and not sure what just happened – but in a good way! 

Bavouzet ended the evening with the wonderfully effervescent Étude de concert by Gabriel Pierné as an encore, restoring somewhat a sense of equilibrium in the audience with a joyously extrovert show of brilliance.    

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