Was it nervous anticipation that made Jean-Efflam Bavouzet fiddle around with the piano bench for a minute or longer? Was it respect, bordering on fear, for the most challenging of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: op. 106, the “Hammerklavier”? Rightly so, if that was indeed the case at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater where he gave a performance as part of WPAS’s Hayes Piano Series, because not every pianist will successfully subdue that work. In the struggle between Mr. Bavouzet and the “Hammerklavier,” the great sonata won all four rounds by a comfortable margin.
It wasn’t the stop & go approach of his interpretation, his oddly accentuated pauses, the meticulously dissected lines, or the abrupt gear changes that had me demur. Those may not have been to my taste, either, but there are a hundred legitimate ways of playing op. 106, and even if I hold Maurizio Pollini’s above all, that needn’t mean that I don’t appreciate and learn from differing approaches. No, it was mostly Bavouzet’s insufficient technical mastery of the work that torpedoed his performance at every turn. Not in our age of technically facile piano stars can you miss, drop, and slur that many notes and expect to get away with it. “JEB” made Arthur Schnabel’s recording sound like the very model of an exacting and precise performance while never coming close to matching Schnabel’s nuanced insights.
Tim Page, A Soft Touch Brings Out The Best in Pianist Bavouzet (Washington Post, January 23)
L.v.Beethoven, Late Piano Sonatas,
When Ludwig van Beethoven sent the sonata off to his publisher in 1819, he wrote to him, “Here you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy who will play it fifty years from now.” It is good to know that some still struggle with it, almost 200 years later.
M.Ravel, Complete Piano Music, J.-E. Bavouzet
We’ll never know what possessed Bavouzet to unleash that Beethoven on the unsuspecting audience when he clearly was not ready to present the work in public. And even great Ravel couldn’t quite make up for the butchery or the feeling of having been used as a guinea pig on one of the artist's repertoire experiments. But at least hearing the Ravel we needn’t wonder whether he is actually a good pianist or not: Ondine, that Seinemaiden, for one wiggled her tail fin enthusiastically in appreciation of his art.