Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Beethoven: Refreshing and Provocative

29/01/2016

 Beethoven: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano). St John’s Smith Square, London, 26.1.2016 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

A performance of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas that was not in some way special would be a very peculiar thing indeed. That was not, I am pleased to say, the case in this instalment of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, many of whose concerts have decamped across the river to St John’s Smith Square, whilst renovations take place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s way in general with these works was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic, both in sound and often in interpretative strategy, I have heard. It seemed light-years distant from, say, Kempff, Gilels, or Schnabel, perhaps a little closer to Pollini, especially of old, but even in that case hardly similar. One might not always want to hear Beethoven like this, but there is no need to; I, for one, found the experience refreshing and, in the best sense, provocative.

It was the glistening tone that I noticed first in the E major Sonata, above all in the high treble. But the notes could also ‘dissolve’, Debussy-like, which I do not think was a reaction owed only or even principally to Bavouzet’s renown as an interpreter of that composer’s music. Especially during the Prestissimo second movement, the fractures of the music came very much to the fore, in as unsentimental a reading as one might imagine. There was, though, consolation to be heard in the finale, its theme certainly Gesangvoll, and almost Bachian in its dignity. A sense of proliferation, for me bringing Boulez to mind, but also of grander, perhaps more ‘Romantic’ style (Chopin?), characterised the first variation, whereas an almost pointillistic approach to the outer material of the second variation contrasted both with its predecessor and to echoes of the Liszt of similar times (the 1840s) in the second. There was continuing variety but also a strong, challenging impression of unity as the movement progressed, as if propelled by some centrifugal force (not, perhaps, entirely unlike Boulez’s conception of serialism). The counterpoint of the fifth variation struck me both by its concision and by something approaching the difficulty of the Missa solemnis. The return of the theme, dignified as before, perhaps inevitably had me think of the Goldberg Variations.

The opening theme of the A-flat Sonata initially seemed to signal a potential similarity to that of its predecessor, before going its very different way both in itself and its development. Bavouzet’s clarity and modernistic tone seemed to make this music strange once again. Icy fire characterised the Allegro molto. Again, there was no attempt to paper over the cracks; the cracks seemed almost to be the Adornian thing. There was real violence in the music’s contrasts, seemingly although perhaps not entirely unmediated. The opening of the third movement seemed to strain towards simplicity, without ever quite attaining it. There was great sadness to the arioso, without the pianist ever feeling any need to underline, let alone to milk it. Then the fugue built up convincingly, perhaps in a little more conciliatory fashion than we had heard earlier in the sonata, although certainly not without harshness. The arioso’s return sounded all the more sad, even hopeless, yet hope was in a sense, although only in a sense, restored by the fugue in inversion. If that sounds enigmatic, then it was, which is surely as it should be. And yet, again just as it should, Beethoven’s profound humanity shone through the enigmas, even the fractures. Has there ever been a time when we need him more than now?

With the first movement of the C minor Sonata, we again seemed to look forward to Liszt, its opening downward leaps hinting perhaps at the later composer a semitone lower (and often in inversion). Likewise the ensuing dissonances, although with them it was perhaps the Liszt of old age, but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg. It was furious, without a doubt; equally, it was possessed of great integrity, if anything still more uncompromising in its modernity than what had passed before. I could not help but think that this was a performance Boulez would have admired. The clear-eyed opening statement of the second movement rendered me anything but clear-eyed. As the music progressed, there seemed an increasing sense that Beethoven was only just keeping things together. The strain was apparent; most important, it was moving. It seemed to me that Bavouzet had as complete an understanding as one could hope for as to how rhythm here is liberated by harmony. This was, I thought, a Beethoven performance of undeniable greatness: not different for the sake of it, but asserting its – and Beethoven’s – difference through a Pollini-like re-examination of the material. It shocked me but also made me smile, as absorbing as it was elevating. All Beethoven performances should, if only briefly, restore one’s faith in humanity; this one did. After which, the encore – surely something one would only risk here in very particular circumstances – was utterly apposite: Boulez’s Notations, nos 7-9.

Mark Berry

Print Friendly

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • UPDATED! Culture and the Coast: Garsington’s Opera for All and Forthcoming Opera Screenings __________________________________
  • NEW! 2017 BBC Proms from Friday 14 July – Saturday 9 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Announces Details of New Season 2017/2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Grange Park Opera’s 2017 Season in its New Opera House __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House Announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! In 2017 The Three Choirs Festival is from 22 to 29 July __________________________________
  • NEW! Glyndebourne Festival 2017: At Glyndebourne, At the Cinema and On Tour __________________________________
  • NEW! The Cleveland Orchestra in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2017 features Salieri’s The School of Jealousy __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder Announces Seventh Festival of Song for April __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera Announces its 2017/2018 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Ballet’s 2017 – 2018 Autumn/Winter Season __________________________________
  • NEW! General Booking is Now Open for Longborough Festival Opera 2017 __________________________________
  • NEW! 2017 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! IN MEMORIAM LOUIS FRÉMAUX (1921-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! Robert Farr reports on the 26th Annual Singing Competition Final – Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Award for Singers __________________________________
  • UPDATED IN MEMORIAM NICOLAI GEDDA (1925-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! BARITONE MICHAEL VOLLE IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • NEW! PIANIST ALEXANDER KARPEYEV IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! Reviews of Opera in Mumbai: A Gala and La Bohème Revisited __________________________________
  • NEW! FIVE YOUNG SINGERS JOIN THE JETTE PARKER YOUNG ARTISTS FOR 2017 __________________________________
  • NEW! THE SOPRANO ELISABETH MEISTER: FIGHTING BACK FROM WHAT LIFE THROWS AT YOU AND INSPIRING OTHERS __________________________________
  • NEW! REVIEWERS OF SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL PICK THEIR BEST OF 2016 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Mastersingers Celebrate Wagner Past and Present with the Rehearsal Orchestra __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H