Although this was ostensibly a recital featuring the music of two composers, a third, much less venerable one, also managed to leave his mark on proceedings. The figure in question is Carl Czerny, the one-time pupil of Beethoven’s whose banal piano studies proved to be the springboard for the first of Claude Debussy’s own, far more inventive forays into the genre. In contrast to Debussy’s constructive borrowing, Czerny’s impact upon his teacher’s legacy was far more problematic, his many anecdotes often obscuring rather than illuminating the music in question.

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

In Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s account of the Beethoven’s three sonatas Op. 31, the influence of Czerny’s anecdotes was most obvious in the finale to the “Tempest” Sonata, Op. 31 no. 2. According to Czerny it was the sight of a horse galloping that was the composer’s inspiration here, a claim which has lead to generations of pianists, including Bavouzet, to play a movement marked “Allegretto” in a manner more suited to Presto and in so doing obscuring its many finer details. If this finale lacked enough sensitivity then the sonata’s first movement lacked bite; the frequent sforzandi being almost entirely ironed out. The extraordinary passages of recitativo within one long sustained wash of pedal (one of Beethoven’s greatest pianistic innovations) were dealt with ingeniously if self-consciously; by holding keys down with his left hand rather than applying the pedal Bavouzet may well have achieved something closer to a period sound but in so doing sacrificed the moment’s mystery. It’s always a shame only to hear two-thirds of a piece of music, but Bavouzet’s decision to omit the first movement repeat is even more puzzling as Beethoven clearly marks a first- and second-time bar.

The G major Sonata, no. 1 – Beethoven’s funniest? – was far more successful with Bavouzet perfectly capturing the irreverent spirit of the numerous false endings in the outer movements. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the second movement’s bel canto outer sections worked wonderfully though the contrast between this and the central angst-ridden section would have been more effective if a true pianissimo had been found. The E flat Sonata which completes the set is far more complex in tone that the previous two, and whilst Bavouzet captured the whimsical elements of the opening the underlying tenderness was neglected. The third movement’s glorious melody was given all the space it needed to really sing whilst the finale was delivered, if not with complete security, then with an engaging sense of drama.

Bavouzet is perhaps most acclaimed for his Debussy, though his account of the Études here showed both the positives and negatives of long-term familiarity; whilst his account sometimes displayed an impressive instinct for the harmonic and formal peculiarities of these late, knotty works, many of the pieces were dispatched with a puzzling dispassion and lack of poetry. After the restrained pedalling in the Beethoven, Bavouzet seemed to relish finally being able to use the full resonance of the modern grand. The middle section of “Pour les accords” was perfectly judged, as was the following transition back to the riotous music which concludes the set as a whole.

In an exquisite encore – Liszt’s Wiegenlied – Bavouzet displayed an engagement and willingness to communicate with his audience which, if it had been present in his playing elsewhere, would have made for a very memorable evening indeed.