To perform so many of Debussy’s works in one sitting requires a certain amount of skill and understanding. The charismatic pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet opened our eyes to the impressionistic world of Claude Debussy in this special three-part concert for the Cheltenham Music Festival. The programme, entitled ‘The Essential Debussy’, was designed by Bavouzet to explore Debussy’s relationship with the piano and cover many of his major compositions, in a meticulous order and grouping. The in-depth study passed over three hours with an early start, not to bore but to delight – each and every step of the event was fascinating and gripping.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Paul Mitchell

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brought energy to the performance, and every time he returned from an interval or from drinking a glass of water, he looked just as fresh as when he first came on stage. His stage presence confirmed his intellect, providing informative yet witty observations about the pieces before playing them. In the second part of the concert, Bavouzet described the Etude I pour les cinq doigts d’après Monsieur Czerny as the right hand getting bored and wanting to join in, whilst the left hand repeated a study. It was evident from his discussion and performance that Bavouzet has wonderful technical ability, and also knowledge of Debussy as a composer and character: this was a unique interpretation of the music. His style on the piano speaks his own heart, whilst staying as close to the particular edition he has chosen to perform of each piece as he can. Through his interpretation he uncovers the true emotion required to play Debussy. This is what Debussy calls ’la chair nue de l’émotion’ (the naked flesh of emotion), where the performer puts emotion into the music whilst maintaining control over the piece.

The highlight of the first part of the concert was the moving and radiant Clair de lune, followed straight after by a lively L’isle Joyeuse. This was received with great applause, to which Bavouzet jokingly responded by stating the lack of time and gesturing to the audience to stop clapping and go and have a break. Instead of playing the programmed Estampes, Bavouzet played the rarely performed Images oubliées, which contains three movements – of which the middle Sarabande is incredibly similar to the Sarabande in Pour le Piano. Bavouzet took the time and trouble to explain the differences to us and said that in one part, there was in fact no difference in notes, but solely a difference in hand positions and whether the thumbs are crossed or not. It was fascinating to hear how scrupulous Debussy was with his compositions, and reassuring that Bavouzet understood such subtleties and needs in the music.

The excellence of the performance was enhanced by a great venue. The acoustics at the Pittville Pump Room were soft enough to maintain that special ethereal quality required for Debussy, yet the mellow tones of the Steinway added to the warmth of the harmonic colour of his works.

According to Bavouzet, Debussy’s two-book collection of Préludes demand a separate category of their own, away from the rest of his compositions. A small taster of three movements was played from Book I in the second part of the concert including a beautiful rendition of the well-known La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”). A second longer interval of exchanging vouchers for coffee and croissants was required by all before Bavouzet went on to play the entire Book II – no less than twelve pieces – in a tireless manner. He raised his eyebrows at the audience in witty parts of the eccentric Général Lavine and looked as though he had great fun in performing the piece. The spectacular marathon was rounded off with a climactic Feux d’artifice which ended the morning perfectly with a discreet musical reference to the Marseillaise and a big climax. Rarely has a performer had quite so much affinity to a composer and shared it with such perfection.

*****