Last Sunday, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a solo recital in Vancouver that would be long remembered for its stunning pianism, artistic integrity, and ardent spirituality.
The artist opened his recital with the not often heard Sonata in A-flat major (Hob XVI: 46) of Haydn. From the first notes, I realized that we were in the presence of an incredible musical mind, as he navigated through the many shifts in moods and musical ideas of the rather extensive first movement. Bavouzet has a wonderful sense of direction in moving the music forward, as well as a naturalness – as if the composer is speaking to us through his music – that is only found in the greatest artist. The many pregnant pauses and fermatas throughout the movement were also timed to perfection. In the second movement, the pianist guided us through the relative bleakness of the opening four measures, with only the left hand playing, towards Haydn’s masterfully achieved gradual integration of colours, and gave us a feeling of time suspended. I loved his fleet fingered playing, the lightness of his touch, as well as his sense of comic timing in the breathless and humour-filled third movement.
In his essay Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious? Alfred Brendel says: “For me, the most convincingly comical absolute music has been written by the Viennese classical masters….” I was very much thinking of Brendel’s wonderful piece of writing – itself a masterpiece of wit – as I was hearing Bavouzet’s playing of the aforementioned Haydn and the Beethoven sonatas that followed. Humour in music is far more difficult to bring off than tragedy. Recently I heard a competent performance of Haydn’s “English” sonata (Hob XVI: 50) that was entirely devoid of humour. I believe Brendel would have approved of Bavouzet’s playing, and laughed at the many ways he brought out the music’s sidesplitting humour.
There is much to admire in his performance of the composer’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 and Sonata in F major, Op. 10, No. 2. In his playing, there was an obvious awareness of the overriding structure of the music, something that he achieved so naturally and without pedanticism. In the middle movement of the Sonata in C minor, he simply and naturally highlighted the beauty of the music, without monumentalizing. In the coda to the movement (m. 90), Bauvozet gave the music a special glow, almost like a blossoming, of the music. The third movement of the sonata began with utter seriousness but quickly “degenerates” into good-natured humour. Bavouzet really understood and highlighted this dichotomy between the two opposing characteristics. His timing of the syncopated chords at m. 38 was especially successful.
Bavouzet played the second movement (Allegretto) of the Sonata in F major a little slower than I had thought of it, giving the music a sense of spaciousness and mystery. His playing of the third movement reminded me of a chase in Keystone Kops, which I believe is exactly the kind of slapstick comedy Beethoven had in mind. In his aforementioned essay on humour in music, Brendel extensively discussed this movement, citing it as “a combination of incongruous elements” which gives the music its “distinguishing feature of wit.” In this movement, Brendel added, “the solemn technique of fugal writing is ‘abused’ for burlesque purposes.” The great pianist quoted Adolf Bernhard Marx, who “likened the movement to ‘a child that plucks an old man’s beard.’” Bavouzet would surely agree with Brendel’s statements, for his playing of this movement left the audience laughing and cheering at the same time.
Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs is not often played in entirety except in recordings, which puzzles me, since I consider it as much of a masterpiece as the composer’s more oft-played works. Of course, each of the works’ five movements could work as stand alone compositions. Let me say right here that Bavouzet’s playing of this work was stunning, pianistically as well as interpretatively. In Noctuelles, Vlado Perlemuter, who studied all of Ravel’s piano music with the composer, said that the Ravel “wanted the melody to be full of colour and a certain inner liveliness.” Bavouzet achieved both of Ravel’s demands. In fact, his sense of pianistic colours is uncanny. Hearing Bavouzet’s playing of this music was like looking at a Monet or a Seurat, with their almost limitless shading and gradations of colours. In Oiseaux Tristes, Bavouzet’s playing of this song of the sad bird, with its beautifully achieved pianissimos, gave it almost a hypnotic effect. This wonderful pianist realized Ravel’s marking in Une Barque sur l'Océan – with subtle rhythm – to perfection, and gave the music beautifully subtle shadings and infinite degrees of colours.
There was an ease in Bavouzet’s playing of Alborada del Gracioso, a pianistic tour de force, a feeling that he was so far above the demands of the score, that made the performance that much more stunning and remarkable. For me, his playing of this movement was on the level of Lipatti and Richter. He edged out the colours in the music in an almost painterly fashion, and brought out the bright sun drenched sceneries as well as the darker, more sinister moods within the music. In La Vallée des Cloches, with its long sustained melody, this master pianist gave this music an almost frightening sense of stillness.
Bavouzet brought a sense of unerring control in his performance of Claude Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse. Right at the beginning, he already lavished much detail in the right hand trills and flourishes, almost like splashes of colours. He brought beautiful shadings and subtlety to his playing of the A major section, with its beautifully right-hand melody (m. 67). It was an interpretation that truly conveyed the joyous, almost orgiastic frenzy that the composer intended.
The artist gave us one surprising encore – Etude de Concert, Op. 13 by Gabriel Pierné (1863 – 1937). The composer was somewhat of a discovery by Mr. Bavouzet, who had recorded many of his works in his discography. It was a charming and scintillating performance of this little miniature gem.
Today’s music world is all too often filled with hype, performers who are “personalities” rather than artists. But no amount of designer clothing, no number of five-inch stilettos, can give an artist maturity and musical integrity. Mr. Bavouzet is a tremendous artist and musician blessed with natural pianistic gifts, musical integrity, as well as the gift of uncanny insights into the composers mind. The sound he conjured up on the piano invites rather than commands us to listen.
It was a joy and privilege to have been witness to this remarkable performance.