Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made his Bay Area recital debut as part of the 2017 season of Chamber Music San Francisco. Bavouzet made his San Francisco debut in October of 2012 performing Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of visiting conductor Vasily Petrenko. He then returned to Davies Symphony Hall in 2014 while touring with the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski. Over the course of two concerts, he performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 (second) piano concerto in C major and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 rhapsody on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 solo violin caprices.
His recording projects have included all five of the Prokofiev concertos, but he has also recorded the complete piano works of Claude Debussy as a five-CD collection. Last year he finished recording the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, released as a series of three three-CD volumes. Both his Beethoven and Debussy efforts were presented yesterday afternoon in a program that devoted its first half to eighteenth-century Vienna and its second half to early twentieth-century Paris. The former preceded two Beethoven sonatas with one by Joseph Haydn, while the latter paired Debussy with Maurice Ravel.
The most ambitious selection of the afternoon was Ravel’s Miroirs (mirrors), a five-movement suite composed between 1904 and 1905. Ravel would subsequently orchestrate the third and fourth of these movements; and, in that orchestral form, the latter, “Alborada del gracioso” (the jester’s aubade), is one of Ravel’s most frequently performed symphonic selections. However, while the instrumental colors of that latter version are unforgettable, the keyboard fireworks are even more dazzling, as they are consistently throughout the entire cycle.
Each of the movements is dedicated to one of the colleagues Ravel made as a member of Les Apaches, an avant-garde collective of musicians, writers, and artists that formed around 1900. While the group was named after a Native American tribe, the French had adapted it to mean “hooligans;” and the collective was definitely out to upset the apple cart. (Igor Stravinsky was also a member, as was Manuel de Falla.) In Miroirs Ravel certainly met that goal by imposing almost impossible technical demands on the pianist; and the aggressive rhetoric of what was supposed to be a simple love song delivered with the dawn probably shook up many of those hearing “Alborada” for the first time.
These days the “shock of the new” has eased considerably. Nevertheless, the underlying theme of an ambitious attention to take a series of titles, each with a thoroughly visual denotation, and “reflect” them, one by one, into a complementary matching series of auditory experiences still has the power to startle. This was an approach that Claude Debussy had only begun to pursue on his own terms in 1903 when he composed his own three-movement suite Estampes (prints), each of which also took a visual impression as its point of departure. One might almost go so far as to suggest that the last piece in Ravel’s set, “La vallée des cloches” (the valley of the bells) can be taken as a reflection of the first piece in Debussy’s collection “Pagodes” (pagodas, although those more familiar with the image Debussy evoked would probably feel justified in calling the piece “Stupas”).
Bavouzet’s technical command of each of these five pieces was so solid that he could devote most of his attention to establishing those connections between the visual and the auditory that Ravel probably had in mind. Fortunately, the listener was prepared to appreciate this skill, since the program sheet provided the movement titles in both French and English. The result was an experience of ideas that could well have been rendered as paintings but were never realized as such, and Bavouzet’s attention to the details in Ravel’s score amounted to the way in which certain painters allow us to appreciate every single brush stroke.
This connection between music and painting was then reinforced by the Debussy composition that Bavouzet chose to play after completing Miroirs. This was “L’isle joyeuse” (the joyful island), music that many believe was inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting “The Embarkation for Cythera.” Cythera was a “pleasure island,” where the privileged could go to indulge in practices forbidden by “polite society.” What makes the painting interesting is that one never sees Cythera. One only sees the anticipation that is overwhelming those about to make the journey. (Actually, two couples are already “getting it on” while everyone else is lining up to board!) From this point of view, Debussy music is all about that anticipation, and Bavouzet knew exactly how to capture the intensity of that spirit:
The Embarkation for Cythera, by Watteau, digital image created by C2RFM, uploaded by Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
If the “Parisian” portion of Bavouzet’s program was all about the musical embodiment of rich imagery, the “Viennese” portion was more occupied with “music for its own sake.” The Beethoven selections were the first two of the three Opus 10 sonatas from 1798. The Haydn selection was the Hoboken XVI/46 sonata in A-flat major, probably composed between 1767 and 1768, relatively early in Haydn’s service to the Esterházy family. This is one of those sonatas whose slow movement allows for a cadenza (marked by a fermata); and Bavouzet supplied his own for this occasion.
However, sensitivity for inventing a cadenza aside, Bavouzet tended to prefer rapidity as the “primary trait” of all three of these sonatas. His technique was certainly up to that sort of challenge, but I find it hard to believe that setting speed records for notes per second was a priority for either composer. For one thing, the keyboards of that time were probably not up to that rapidity. However, if there was any attention to precision (and we can probably assume that there was), then the speed of tempo would probably have been guided by the decay time for the piano strings as well as the reverberation of the entire instrument.
Yesterday afternoon Bavouzet’s tempo choices may have been consistent with the responsiveness of his instrument, but the combination of natural decay time and his pedal work tended to obscure most of the notes in the rapid passages he had to execute. The result was that many of the thematic motifs tended to dissolve into textural blurs. While the dexterity of execution could be stunningly impressive, the compositional inventiveness of both Haydn and Beethoven tended to get lost in those blurs. Similarly, while Bavouzet definitely commanded a wide dynamic range, the forcefulness of his loud dynamics further impeded awareness of just what both composers were doing with the notes at their disposal. The result was an occasion at which the better informed listeners would probably have preferred a more historically-appropriate instrument and more of an overall regard for clarity.
Fortunately, Bavouzet remained in Paris for the encore selection that followed “L’isle joyeuse.” He played the Opus 13 concert étude in C minor composed by Gabriel Pierné. Pierné was Debussy’s contemporary. He tends to be known for his reputation as an organist, and he was César Franck’s successor at the Sainte-Clotilde Basilica. However, he was also the conductor for the world premiere of the Ballet Russes performance of the ballet “The Firebird,” which marked the beginning of Igor Stravinsky’s collaboration with Serge Diaghilev. The étude provided Bavouzet with a more conducive setting for the display of his prodigious dexterity, and it definitely ended the afternoon on an exhilarating note.