Fine Pianism and a Fascinatingly Diverse Programme from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

11/02/2019

Haydn, Schumann, Boulez, Ravel, and Prokofiev: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 10.2.2019. (MB)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (c) Chandos Records

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E-flat major No.49 Hob. XVI/49
Schumann – Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.14
Boulez – Twelve Notations
Ravel – Jeux d’eau; Miroirs: ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No.3 in A minor Op.28

Any half-decent performance including works by Haydn and Boulez will prove a success. This Wigmore Hall recital from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was no exception and was rather more than half-decent. If I am unsure that I discerned a guiding thread in the programming, the ear and mind in any case always make their own connections; mine certainly did so here.

Haydn’s late-ish (1790) E-flat major Sonata, Hob. XVI/49 (not to be confused with that of four years later) retained some of the composer’s early quirkiness under Bavouzet’s hands: not in a self-conscious way, but seemingly through letting notes, phrases, paragraphs speak for themselves. (That may be an illusion, but more often than not, it is a necessary illusion.) A fastish yet flexible tempo for the first movement probably helped in that respect; this was a living, breathing performance, not Haydn as a classical or classicising monument. The first repeat – Bavouzet took both – was anything but a mere ‘repeat’; reinvented in the light of experience, the music sounded closer to a first development. The counterpoint of the development proper spoke clearly, beautifully of Haydn’s recent interest in Bach – until, of course, the writing changed. Whatever the discontinuities, they were, as in Beethoven (and Bavouzet’s Beethoven) predicated on and communicated with a sense of underlying continuity. One experienced rather than simply heard – or knew – different elements of construction, above all motivic. A grand, passionate, not un-Beethovenian Adagio e cantabile followed: Romantic without anachronism, close to Beethoven because Beethoven stands so close to Haydn. Bavouzet showed himself equally alert to the vocalism of the right hand part and to what ensures that this is unquestionably keyboard music. The third and final movement was boldly sculpted, anticipations of Schubert relished without exaggeration. Again, whatever the illusions and delusions of the claim, the sense was of Haydn’s score speaking for itself – quite without pedantry, very much in the moment.

There was, by contrast, rightly an element of Romantic classicism to Bavouzet’s Schumann sonata (mostly given in its 1853 revision, but with a few elements retained from the first, 1836 edition). The sound – not just the Yamaha’s sonority, but harmony, attack, everything that combines in our eyes and ears – was indefinably Schumann’s from the outset: a very different world from Haydn’s, even if not so distant chronologically. How much changed so quickly during this time! The first movement, as elsewhere, showed no want of flexibility, but structure sounded more given – a nineteenth-century ‘received’ sonata form – than created. Such was the challenge of writing in such forms after Beethoven – or, for that matter, Haydn. Technical virtuosity required was of a different order too, not that that was any problem for Bavouzet. In the scherzo, rhythms were nicely sprung, vehicles of harmonic motion that rightly placed us somewhere between Mendelssohn and Brahms. This may not present Schumann at his most fantastical, but there was still a keen element of that quality: winning and highly convincing, in a work often thought problematical. The third movement variations flowed like a wayward, yet ultimately directed river, their transformations surprising yet never arbitrary. Of all four movements, the finale stands most clearly in the line of the original publication title (in three-movement form), ‘Concert sans orchestre’. It certainly sounded so here; indeed, one might have been forgiven for suspecting three hands at work, two for orchestra, another – or should that be another two? – for solo instrument. Once more, virtuosity unleashed a flow of unmistakeably Romantic poetry.

After the interval came Notations, treated to a spoken introduction by the pianist, who had worked with Boulez both on this work and others. (I recall hearing him give three of these twelve-by-twelve jewels as an encore to the three final Beethoven sonatas, shortly after Boulez’s death in January 2016.) An impression of thinking and rethinking, of taking no mere ‘tradition’ for granted – very much, be it noted, in Boulez’s own line, or day I say, tradition – was once again present. The first piece was full of contrast, yet perhaps warmer than expected; the second and other toccata-like pieces dazzled with all the éclat one could imagine – and then some. Bavouzet clearly relished Boulez’s craftsmanship and pent-up, post-expressionist emotion alike. For there was inwardness too, as in the third and fifth pieces; in the former, I even cast an aural glance back to the Bachian counterpoint of the Haydn first movement, heard as if through a Debussyan gauze. Number play was vividly communicated; so too was a highly-developed – even at this age – sense of instrumental theatre, especially at the close.

Three pieces by Ravel followed. The opening figures of Jeux d’eaux seemed to emerge, even if they did not, from Boulez. Voicing was exquisite yet purposeful – never a mere diversion in itself – both here and in the two pieces from Miroirs. ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ sounded related to the former piece, yet whereas in that, we were the beholders of a static scene, the water glistening according to the sun, now one sensed movement – of that boat – upon the waters. Post-Lisztian virtuosity effected a volatility subtler than that required for Gaspard de la nuit, yet no less for that. ‘Alborada del gracioso’ was taken quite without indulgence, its hauteur suggestive of the lands south of the Basque country, whatever the provenance of composer and pianist. It was precise, yes, but meaning lay in that precision and in its unspoken connections and connotations.

Integrative and disintegrative qualities were held in equal account in the closing performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata. In context, it sounded as if risen from the ashes of the music heard earlier in the evening as much as from Liszt and Scriabin, though their presence was also undeniable. Diabolicism suggested the Fiery Angel to come. Side-slipping melodies rose from the material when least expected, yet with an inevitability in retrospect that brooked no dissent to their often surprisingly ‘white’, diatonic twists and turns. Virtuosity was again a necessity as starting point, but only as that. Here was to be experienced a stream of consciousness in the proper, modernist sense, inexplicably (as yet) coherent.

Mark Berry

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