With grizzled mane and beard, there’s something handsomely leonine about François-Frédéric Guy. He also displays lion-like qualities at the piano: steely fingers, ready to pounce and rip chords apart, even emitting the occasional low growl. In this tremendous afternoon recital at the Institut français, his Beethoven snarled and roared.

François-Frédéric Guy © Benjamin de Diesbach
François-Frédéric Guy
© Benjamin de Diesbach

The Institut français is home base for the “It’s All About Piano!” festival and this recital took place in the Ciné lumière. Furious last-minute tuning to the upper register of the Steinway delayed the start, but Guy’s Mozartian amuse-bouche settled the mood. The Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” – “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to British ears  – were tastefully dispatched. The initial nursery rhyme theme, scrupulously pedalled, was simplicity itself, but the twelve variations which followed were delightful, a witty dialogue between left and right hands. Key attributes here were crisp articulation and lightness of attack.

That attack grew much weightier in Beethoven. The Piano Sonata no. 21 in C major, named the “Waldstein” after its dedicatee, Count Waldstein of Vienna, crackled with revolutionary fire. After a breathless opening, which occasionally led to garbled runs, Guy channelled this febrile energy into something more focused and fiery, staccatos punched out sharply. The lyrical second subject offered a moment or two of balm before Guy launched into the stormy development section with relish. Here was Beethoven at his most bustling and brusque, with playing of epic strength and marble grandeur.

Dark introspection takes over in the second movement’s introduction. Guy captured the exploratory, improvisatory mood of the music, like an artist sketching in charcoal before picking up his easel, feeling his way into the picture. The French nickname for this sonata (L’aurore) points to the gradual rays of sunlight fingering over the horizon at the start of the Rondo finale. Guy revelled in the dizzy syncopations, drawing thunderous bass pedal notes from the piano. The sonata culminated in an explosive climax, Guy leaping to his feet before the final chord had died.

François-Frédéric Guy at the Institut français © Mariona Vilaros
François-Frédéric Guy at the Institut français
© Mariona Vilaros

From C major to C minor, the recital ended with more Beethoven, Guy as brooding and as rugged in the final Op.111 Sonata as he had been in the “Waldstein”. He tore into the dramatic opening chords in highly operatic manner before the rumbling bass G and A flat demisemiquavers kick-started the Allegro con brio ed appassionato section. Guy’s muscular phrasing and steely attack was most impressive, even if velvet softness in quieter passages sometimes eluded him.

Guy is the ideal Beethoven interpreter. Even in the hushed opening to the Arietta theme which opens the second movement, he maintained incredible intensity in his playing; always pushing forward, searching for the next notes. Eventually, release came as the song-like theme blossomed, bursting into flower in the incredible third variation with its boogie-woogie syncopation. After reaching the summit, Guy skilfully managed the descent, Beethoven fantasy-like coda gradually drawing us back to a sense of repose and quiet reflection.