Hot on the heels of the release of their new disc of works by Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky for two pianos, French pianists François-Fréderic Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet returned to London’s Wigmore Hall to present a programme of music featuring these composers. Three 20th century orchestral scores written within just four years of one another – Bartok’s Two Pictures, Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – were brought to life in a concert replete in colour, rhythmic vitality, sensuality and split-second precision.

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

I first heard Guy and Bavouzet perform Jeux and The Rite of Spring in 2012 in a concert which brought fire, daring and vertiginous virtuosity to a weekday lunchtime at the Wigmore. To hear the same pianists in the same repertoire three years later was revelatory, for it seems as if the music has matured, like a good wine. This second performance was slicker, yet full of even greater spontaneity and vibrancy.

Debussy was the unifying thread which ran through the programme. Bartók had come across the Frenchman’s music via Zoltán Kodály, and in 1910 Bartók went to Paris where he hoped to meet Debussy. His Two Pictures, Op.10 show the direct influence of Debussy, particularly the first of the pair, “In Full Flower”, with its perfumed harmonies and sensuous dynamic palette. The second is more familiar territory for Bartók, infused with the folk rhythms and melodies of his native country. The two-piano transcription is by Zoltán Kocsis and like the other works in the programme it refreshes one’s experience of the full orchestral score by highlighting special details – motifs, dynamics, articulation. In the case of The Rite of Spring, originally conceived as a work for piano duo, and played through for the first time with Claude Debussy, one gains a special appreciation of the scoring and the dramatic narrative of the work.

The Bartók opened with a sinuous twining melody, beautifully controlled. From the outset, it was clear that these pianists work closely together with a special empathy and musical friendship, not only through the pinpoint accuracy of their timing, but also in the warmth, humour and evident enjoyment with which the music was delivered. The rich sound one enjoys from two concert grands playing simultaneously (in this case, two magnificent Yamaha CF-X pianos) was further enhanced by the pianists’ clarity of touch and tone, Guy playing with a nimble elegance matched by Bavouzet’s nuanced colour and musical sensitivity.

The works by Bartók provided a route into the heady eroticism of Debussy’s Jeux, a story in music of an innocent game of tennis charged with sexual ambiguity. This transcription is by Bavouzet, Debussy’s own (for solo piano) being virtually impossible to play as written. In addition to making the work easier to play, he has added more trills and tremolandos to suggest sustained notes and chords. Jeux is a musical stream of consciousness, cast in a single movement, which unfolds almost film-like in an endless array of variants and transformations, seemingly renewing and reinventing itself as it progresses. The pianists captured the improvisatory nature of the music with an active and sensitive interplay, the motifs and lines bouncing wittily between them, just like the tennis balls of the game.

François-Frédéric Guy © AMR
François-Frédéric Guy
© AMR

Jeux was premiered just two weeks before The Rite in 1913, and was virtually eclipsed by the scandal caused by Stravinsky’s work. The piece still has the power to shock with its throbbing rhythms suggesting not only pagan rituals but also the anxiety and increasing mechanisation of a world poised on the cusp of total war. In the stamping insistent chords of “The Augurs of Spring”, unleashed with a convulsive fury by Bavouzet with lively interjections from Guy, we hear the relentless chug of machines and oscillating cogs and wheels. The music cuts abruptly from section to section and, unlike the Debussy, there are no developing themes: instead the sections are connected at their most fundamental levels – scales, rhythmic units and tempi. The whole narrative was driven home by Guy and Bavouzet with a gripping and obsessive pianistic drama of bells, drums and sirens, delivering raw energy and cliff-hanging excitement.

Not content with ending the concert here, the pianists returned to the stage to give two generous encores from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole to round off a thrilling evening of high-powered pianism.

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