Promise of Ohana was the draw to the Wigmore Hall, but Bavouzet gave far more in return

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Wagner, Liszt, Ohana: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.10.2021 (CC)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays in the Wigmore Hall

DebussyDanse bohémienne (1880). Images oubliées (1894)
Wagner – Prelude from Tristan und Isolde (1857-59, arr. Zoltán Kocsis).
LisztIsoldes Liebestod, S 447 (1867); Sposalizio from Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, Italie S161 (1838-61)
Debussy – Arabesque No.1 (c.1890); Images, Book I (1901-5)
OhanaTwelve Études d’interprétation (1982-85): No. 5, ‘Quintes’; No. 4, ‘Main gauche seul’
Debussy – L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Those who have followed Jean-Efflam’s brilliant, beautiful Debussy series on Chandos will already be au fait with the Danse bohémienne (it appeared on Volume 3). In the recording one can perhaps imagine the gesture Bavouzet gave the audience at the end of this light, early piece: a sort of very French ‘that’s it’ shrug. It was a delightful performance of a piece that is immensely playful. There was no doubt this is a dance. Bavouzet played it as the important piece it is, a vital part in the Debussy jigsaw but a vibrant piece of music in and of itself. Would one identify it as Debussy without being told?  Possibly, but the Debussy we know and love is some way off.

Bavouzet introduced his programme brilliantly, the perfect adjunct to Nigel Simeone’s programme notes. Unpublished until 1977, the three Images oubliées are certainly representative of Debussy’s core Impressionism, as Bavouzet proved in the first ‘Lent (mèlancolique et doux)’. The second movement, ‘Souvenir du Louvre’, is an early version of the Sarabande from Pour le Piano (Bavouzet demonstrated the small differences at the piano, pointing out that they are so similar that he doesn’t programme them both in the same recital as it might be too easy to go in the wrong direction!). The sense of artifice, of dignity, to Bavouzet’s performance of this ‘Souvenir’ was magnificent (even more so than his recording: Volume Two this time). The final movement, ‘Quelques aspects de ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’ parce qu’il fait un temps insupportable’ (the title refers to a French nursery song); it is close in many ways to the Toccata from Estampes. Bavouzet told us in delightful terms about the bass bell that tolls, and Debussy’s marking ‘Assez la cloche!’ (Enough of the bell!)’. Again, perhaps the live provenance gave Bavouzet’s performance that extra je ne sais quoi over his recording. Performances of exquisite sensibilité, delivered with the most subtly varied, beautiful sound.

Given the links between the two composers, it was inspired programming to introduce at this point Wagner, the Prelude and so-called Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. How refreshing to hear the silent rests of the Prelude’s opening counted so well, a vital part of Wagner’s fabric. Bavouzet found a richer sound for Wagner and allowed more rubato than an orchestra might; and how well he integrated the left-hand tremolos, building to the climax perfectly. I wonder if the bare octaves were deliberately meant to point our ears in the direction of the Liszt B minor Sonata (and therefore a further link between the two composers?). Whatever the case, the Liebestod was blessed with the most liquid legato from Bavouzet as well as a sense of inner light, left-hand tremolos now more muscular in intent.

Like Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, Liszt’s ‘Sposalizio’ was inspired by a painting (Raphael’s Lo Spozalizio). A caressingly beautiful way into the programme’s second half, Bavouzet allowed L’isle to unfold naturally, his articulation a dream. Debussy’s First Arabesque brought us into far more familiar terrain before a celebration of French piano music in the twentieth century: In a last-minute change of programme order, we heard the Images next, a beautiful performance. The last Image, ‘Mouvement’, has an emphasis on the interval of a perfect fifth, which links perfectly to the next piece …

Maurice Ohana’s Douze Études d’interpretation is a modern masterpiece that has yet to achieve recognition, at least here in the UK. Bavouzet recorded the whole set for Harmonic Record in 1995s (there is a review on MusicWeb International here). We heard the fifth (‘Quintes’) and the fourth, for the left hand alone. The Etude on Fifths followed on perfectly from the Debussy, taking the still identifiably French musical language to new pastures. Post-Impressionist sums this up well, and I wonder if there was a shadow of Debussy’s ‘Cathédrale engloutie’ there in this piece? The Etude for the left-hand is fascinating: portentous at its opening before becoming what can only be described as jittery. It requires a virtuoso left hand; Bavouzet provided this and more. His understanding of Ohana’s music seems complete: is it too much to ask for the entire set in a future recital? (The last two Etudes require a percussionist as well, so that might mitigate against this possibility). Fabulous music, well worth investigating. I would say buy the disc, but I suspect it may be deleted, definitely worth a search on the second-hand and streaming sites though.

And so to late Debussy: L’isle joyeuse, inspired by a painting by Watteau. This elusive yet joyous piece found Bavouzet at the height of his powers, the lines in perfect concordance, rhythms sprightly, the climax vibrant.

A truly great piano recital, properly educational (Bavouzet is both informative and entertaining as a speaker) and which also touched the heart on many occasions. It was the promise of Ohana that drew me to the Wigmore Hall; I got far more in return.

Colin Clarke

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