Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Seattle Symphony shine in piano concerti by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano and conductor), Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 04.01.2023. (ZC)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Seattle Symphony © Brandon Patoc

Haydn – Keyboard Concerto in F major H.XVIII:3
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major Op.19
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.26 in D major K.537, ‘Coronation’

The names Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are practically synonymous with Western music’s Classical Period. But while one might be familiar with the usual suspects in their repertoires, the Seattle Symphony’s recent program featuring pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet promised a refreshing take on these masters in three of their lesser-known piano concerti.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Piano Concerto in F Major was the opener. Audiences don’t hear Haydn’s piano concerti as often as his pieces for violin and cello. Some of this may be a result of their ambiguous origins, and the simple geniality of the writing exudes courtly affability. But Bavouzet’s interpretation avoided these pitfalls, instead emphasizing the wit and energy of Haydn’s writing in a performance that felt like a true partnership with the orchestra.

Bavouzet promptly returned to the stage for Beethoven’s second piano concerto. ‘Officially’ composed in 1793, the piece is actually Beethoven’s first piano concerto. He likely began writing it around the time that Mozart composed his Coronation Concerto in 1788. Hewing to the conventions of the day, young Beethoven’s vision for what music could communicate feels trapped by expectations that this eventual revolutionary was not yet ready to dismantle. Bavouzet’s performance was a fascinating glimpse into Beethoven’s early years as a composer and a reminder that the Beethoven we know and love today did not sprout fully formed as a transformational composer, Fifth Symphony and ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto in hand.  He was always a work in progress.

Juxtaposed against Haydn, this more nuanced view of Beethoven became apparent. As in Haydn’s concerto, Beethoven’s first effort pulses with wit and energy – and is more of a partnership between soloist and orchestra, not a heroic manifestation for soloists that the composer’s later concerti were. Still, the Second Concerto at times hints at this quality, almost like a preview of paradigm-shifts to come. This was most evident in the opening action of the first movement, where Bavouzet’s entrance brims with misdirection, and throughout the second movement, where the piano leads the orchestra in a ruminating and satisfying back-and-forth.

Bavouzet closed with Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Concerto. At one time, this work was among the most popular in the repertory, and its emphasis on distinguishing the solo piano from the orchestra made it a showcase for Mozart’s own virtuosic abilities.

According to academics, this is most evident in the work’s second movement: a simple melody dominates, but in the score, the composer layers it on top of an equally simple bass line. Here, the thinking goes, is where Mozart would unleash his pianistic genius, adding improvised flourishes that were never written down. Yet even on its own, the melody as written comes across as a profound statement which Bavouzet caressed to maximum effect, bringing a deeper level of emotion and meaning to the music.

Mozart generates unexpected anticipation that Bavouzet and the orchestra exploited to great effect. The Haydn and Beethoven concertos occasionally feel like pieces you wind up and let go. Mozart, on the other hand, takes the listener on a journey.

In the end, the concert was a triumph, and a reminder that even the most familiar works can be made new again in the right interpretation. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Seattle Symphony created a mid-January gem that will be remembered long after the city’s wet winter nights give way to the chorus of spring.

Zach Carstensen

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