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Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Floats Ravel but Sinks Beethoven

Jean-Efflam BavouzetWas 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.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, A Soft Touch Brings Out The Best in Pianist Bavouzet (Washington Post, January 23)
Sadly, it only got worse with a perverse Scherzo where Bavouzet so imposed his willful idiosyncrasy (although that presupposes intent, which is probably giving too much credit) on that second movement that it lost its shape completely. It sounded unrecognizable at several points (which, by the way, is not the same as saying “like I heard it for the first time” – even if I surely never heard it like that before!), got lost, and ended nowhere. I suffered for and with Mr. Bavouzet as he continued to adjust his bench meaninglessly; as though afraid of further engaging with the beast that so consistently bit back. The Adagio sostenuto was nice and safe and slow – very Adagio, just not sostenuto at all.

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L.v.Beethoven, Late Piano Sonatas,
Maurizio Pollini

I’d hate to say ‘pedestrian’ about the performance of any artist who can play that sonata at all – but from a pianist who appears with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, who played under Boulez and Nagano, and who is paid to play for a paying audience, we expect more than that he play the work; we also care how he plays it. While the last movement had its share of flaws and odd moments, there was a short while in which it seemed an improvement over what had come before. But as I wrote the word ‘improvement’, he so tanked an entire passage – never to recover from it until the cringe-worthy end – that made it fit nicely with the other parts, after all. I am sure Bavouzet can be “mercurial, elegant, dynamic and poetic” as other critics have pointed out – he just wasn’t any of it in that work.

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.

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M.Ravel, Complete Piano Music, J.-E. Bavouzet

Ravel’s Miroirs was tackled with more confidence after intermission, and it was audible at once. Noctuelles was well done, the following episodes - Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso, and La vallée des cloches – were better still: evocative and lapping ashore, softly. Gaspard de la Nuit with Ondine, La Gibet, and Scarbo was a touch fresher yet; it suddenly bubbled with confidence and grew into grandeur (Ondine) that was positively wonderful. Scarbo once again showed his propensity for exaggerated stops and pulls, but this time they felt like genuine interpretive choices embedded in a high-quality performance that was accurate and fast at once.

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.