It is a tried and proven strategy of concertising musicians to programme their forthcoming CD several times in their concerts before taking it into the recording studio. In the first half of his Sydney solo recital, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet did just that. The artist is halfway through recording the Beethoven piano sonatas’ cycle, and presented three of the so-called “middle-period” works in the first half of his concert. The second half was devoted to French music and thus the recital offered two rather different, but homogenous areas of the pianist’s current artistic interest. This is not the “rainbow” type of planning (where every item is written by a different composer), but rather a fascinating and revealing artistic “stocktaking”, as if to say: “this is how I feel about these works at the end of 2014”.

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

Of the three sonatas, the E flat Major “Les Adieux”, Op.81a opened the concert, followed by the F major Sonata, Op.54. I did wonder if the originally advertised order (starting with the F major Sonata and have Les Adieux just before the interval) may have served our musical experience better. Apart from the trivial oddity of starting a concert with a “Farewell” sonata, I did find Bavouzet’s way of playing Beethoven highly idiosyncratic and it took most of the first work’s duration for me to adjust to it. The challenging question here is this: is it normal and acceptable to have an idealised image, an audial memory in our mind about a composition and judge any live performance by that yardstick, or should we always keep a completely open mind, ready to accept a dramatically divergent approach? Ideally, the second option would be preferable; however, the first seems to be more natural. Hence my exertions to adjust in the early part of the concert.

Without question, Bavouzet is a supremely gifted musician, with manifest musical imagination and nearly flawless technique. However, his seemingly effortless way of playing the piano seemed at odds with the internal conflicts and tension of Les Adieux. To be sure, conflicts and tension are eventually resolved in Beethoven's sonatas but we arrive to that cathartic point normally at the conclusion of a substantial musical journey. In this case the conflicts appeared to be minimal and their resolution never in question due the pianist's safe negotiation of all dangers (technical or emotional). Thus the third movement didn’t become an exuberant arrival (“Le retour” in the score), its fortissimo bells sounding pleasant rather than victorious as they descended, without warning, from the far-away key of G flat major a semitone lower, to F major.

There is a reason why that brilliant gem, the Sonata in F major Op.54 is not heard more often in concert halls. It is a quirky work in only two movements (most sonatas at the time consisted of three of four movements), starting with a Menuetto (a somewhat archaic dance by 1804) which also includes as its middle section something closely resembling a toccata style exercise in octave playing. This work suited Bavouzet’s somewhat factual approach better and by the time he started the “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, Op.57, I accepted his artistry. He didn’t evoke the image of the tormented Beethoven with the knitted brows thundering across the keyboard. The wonders of the Sonata were explained with respect but without eyes turned to the heavens. The riddles of startling harmonies, dynamics and character changes were solved as a matter-of-fact sleight of hand in front of our eyes; the miracle of the Sonata still triumphed but perhaps without the element of unceasing surprise. I still accepted it because, despite my reservations, it proved to be far more than a correct reading of the score: it was an interpretation.

Things changed dramatically after the interval. The second half of the concert with its Gallic repertoire felt a lot more convincing. The most obvious link between Bruno Mantovani’s Le livre de JEB and Ravel’s Miroirs is that both works present elaborate musical portraits. Mantovani is a compatriot and friend of Bavouzet, a prolific and highly successful composer, who still somehow finds time to direct the Paris Conservatoire. His works are carefully constructed, evocative and original, yet respecting traditional values like beauty of sound or balance of contrasts. His portrayal of Bavouzet is evidently personal as it carries the pianist’s initials already in its title: Le livre de JEB. Its many harp-like passages, complex rhythmic patterns and the frequent use of the instrument’s highest register are not that far from the musical portraits of Ravel’s five friends and comrades, collectively named Miroirs by the composer.

This cycle received an ideal performance on Monday night. Bavouzet’s control over his fingers, dynamics or pedalling was nothing short of inspirational. The hushed beginning of Une Barque sur l’océan was as “supple” as Ravel prescribed, and the Alborada del gracioso (perhaps better known in its orchestral transcription) dazed the audience with its virtuosity and Spanish flair. As a suitable encore, Debussy’s last Prélude, Feux d'artifice, finished the musical fireworks.