Magnificent Pianism, Presenting Great Orchestral Scores in a Revealing Way

15/06/2015

 Bartók, Debussy Stravinsky Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, François-Frédéric Guy (pianos). Wigmore Hall, London, 13.6.2015 (CC)

Bartók – Two Pictures, Op. 10 (arr. Kocsis?)
DebussyJeux (arr. Bavouzet)
StravinskyLe sacre du printemps (arr. two pianos by the composer)

This was a fascinating concert. Bavouzet and Guy played two of the three pieces in a recent BBC Radio 3 Wigmore lunchtime recital; here they added the Bartók and, effectively, played their new CD (Chandos CHAN10863).

Interestingly, the players used Yamaha grands – Bavouzet’s Debussy series on Chandos, the nearest of his discs to hand for me as I write this, was recorded on a Steinway. The Chandos recording of this repertoire also uses a Yamaha – for the extra brightness and clarity, I wonder?

Whatever the case, the programming was inspired. The programme note for the Bartók was, I think, the Wigmore’s stock note for that piece. It talks about the impact of Debussy on the Pictures, of the mix of France with Hungarian verbunkos, but nothing about whether what we heard was an arrangement or not. The Chandos recording states that there it is the Zoltán Kocsis transcription that was used, so I suspect that was what was played on this occasion.

For the first half, Bavouzet sat to the left, as Primo, and Guy to the right. It was a delight to hear two such intelligent pianists, so clearly on the same wavelength, and judging the hall acoustics to perfection (in contrast to Paul Lewis in the last three Beethoven sonatas a couple of nights previously, who showed a tendency to over-compensate). In the piano version, fortes became extra powerful, shorn of any orchestral ‘cushion’; yet sometimes Bartók’s writing showed distinct Debussian influences, a sort of dark, Pelléas-like wash of sound. No missing the Bartókian earthiness of the second piece, though, its rhythms excitingly delivered; yet there was surprising wit in Guy’s interjections, also.

So to Debussy himself, for Bavouzet’s transcription of Jeux. In an interview for the American magazine Fanfare, Bavouzet had told me with much enthusiasm about this transcription, so it was an extra treat actually to hear it. It really is remarkable, an impression perhaps enhanced by the excellence of the performance. Control was all, leading to a perfect evocation of the famously erotic threesome tale built around a tennis game. Any of the music’s surface skittishness was subsumed into a gorgeous sea of Debussian harmonic and emotional ambiguity. Technically, there were superbly even scales from both pianists and pinpoint ensemble. The writing is identifiably virtuoso, although both pianists were more than equipped.  But the emotional journey was what mattered, and the surfacing of ecstasy at one point was remarkable.

The two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite found Guy on Primo. The ear was often drawn, it has to be said, to the level of detail in Bavouzet’s part, but what was perhaps most impressive was that even at the higher dynamic levels one could identify Stravinsky’s layering techniques. A sense of dialogue, so vital to this piece, was everywhere present between the two pianists. If the famous accents of ‘Augurs of Spring’ were not as bone-crushing as one might have liked or expected, it turned out to be a structural decision: the lead-in to the next section, ‘Jeu du rapt’ (‘Ritual of the abduction’) was all the more visceral.

The opening to the second part brought some luminous chording. Here, the music’s power lay in its hypnotic qualities. Even the famous ‘Danse sacrale’ was more evidently balletic, more born of the dance, than one is used to. The repeated rhythms held huge power within them, a power waiting to explode into the high interjections.

It was a remarkable end to a remarkable concert. There were encores, as one might expect from a short evening, and it was Ravel who stepped up to the plate: two-piano versions of movements from Rapsodie espagnole. And they don’t turn up on the disc.

This was a superb evening.

 

Colin Clarke

 

 

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