Very much a live performance from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

November 19, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The difference between a careful, note-perfect recording and a caution-to-the-winds live performance was graphically demonstrated by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Bavouzet   Photo: Guy Vivien

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet      Photo: Guy Vivien

Bavouzet came to Australia with an impressive track record of both, but chose to inject the excitement of the now moment – even though it cost him a few wrong notes. To me, this is what a recital is all about.

His program covered broad musical tastes, from Beethoven to Ravel to a contemporary piece written for him by Bruno Mantovani (not the Mantovani that came cascading but throttled out of 1950 radiograms).

Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas are rather like paving stones of his musical journey. They reveal not only the artistic path that Beethoven took but also the remarkable innovation that broke boundaries and traditions while still captivating players and audiences alike.

Bavouzet began with three Beethoven sonatas from his late middle period, played with the enthusiasm that one might have expected from Beethoven himself. From the first notes of No 26, Les Adieux, it was obvious that Bavouzet was a master of phrasing and able to produce thunder or whispers from the piano with ease. The tempo was not rushed yet it didn’t lag either. The second movement, andante espressivo provided thoughtful respite before the busy third.

Next he played No 22 in F major, Op.54 representing a departure from the usual three-movement sonata form. The two movements are technically demanding, calling for clarity, especially in the execution of staccato. There is no shortage of notes to play, giving a feeling of breathless perpetual motion to the listener – and no doubt the performer too. Bavouzet again showed his mastery of phrasing, so that instead of a gushing stream of octaves (in the first movement) and of single notes (in the second) there was shape to the music. At the conclusion of this sonata the normally sedately seated Bavouzet nearly threw himself backwards off his stool in exuberance as he played the final chord.

He did the opposite at the end of the thrilling coda of Beethoven’s Sonata No 23 in F minor Op. 57 (Appassionata) with a dive forward into the belly of piano saved only by grabbing the top of the case. I liked him for being so carried away. It had been a grand performance.

After interval Bavouzet appeared on stage, score in hand, to play a piece that had been written for him by his friend Bruno Mantovani. More that just written for Bavouzet, but intended as a musical portrait of him. I wondered why he needed the score of such a personal tribute – until he began to play. It would be unreasonably difficult to memorise the fourteen minutes of silences interrupted by explosive intrusions of sound that seemed chosen at random from anywhere on the keyboard. I must say it didn’t leave me wanting to hear it again. In fact, it invited parody. I heard several members of the departing audience say they could do better off the cuff. In the end, it’s a taste thing, and no doubt some better-informed listeners than me may have loved it for all the right reasons.

The program finished with the superbly evocative Miroirs by Ravel. Some pianists put a muffling net over Ravel to get the impressionistic effect, but not Bavouzet. His technique allowed him to play much of the five-part suite with minimal pedal, giving a pearly clarity that was simply delightful. Again he went for performance excitement rather than perfection – something which I applaud.

While each of these five pieces has its own personality, the Spanish idiomed Alborada del Greacioso presents technical challenges that frighten off many accomplished pianists, including the brilliant Stephen Hough. Romanian pianist, Dinu Lipatti, who died in 1950, put down the definitive recording of this hellishly difficult piece with its crazy repeated notes and double glissandos, and performers have been trying to equal it ever since. Bavouzet made a pretty good fist of it, but more enjoyable if you forgot about Lipatti.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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