Portland Piano International review: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet


Portland Piano International's "Upclose with Masters," 11-23-2013, Raley Schweinfurth with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Raley Schweinfurth with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Photo: Jim Leisy.


“I have to thank you, for three reasons,” Jean-Efflam Bavouzet told fourteen-year-old Portland pianist Raley Schweinfurth after she performed Shostakovich’s “Three Fantastic Dances,” for the renowned French pianist. “First of all, I did not know these pieces. Second, you make me love Shostakovich. And third, I knew I would love your playing before you reached the first note. This may sound problematic, but it’s true; you treat your piano exactly like a conductor. Music starts before the first sound, and you expressed the character before making any sound. If you treat this instrument like you’re just pushing the right button at the right time, it will not make any sense.”

Bavouzet pursued this idea more while discussing resonance with 13-year old Christina Im at the same November 23 master class at Portland Piano Company presented by Portland Piano International. “The music is the sound you are creating, but the sound is actually not from you,” he said. “It is already in the piano, and you are just bringing it out. In other words, don’t think you are playing the music but that the piano is playing you.”

Bavouzet’s class and recital the next day raised the next question: what happens when the pianist listens to what the piano is telling her — but what she hears, and plays, differs from the composer’s ideas? In Schweinfurth’s lesson, Bavouzet showed the young pianist Shostakovich’s score. “This note is supposed to be very short,” he said, “but you play it very long. Try again.” Schweinfurth played through the passage, but still held the last note too long. “Voilà!” Bavouzet exclaimed, but then took a long, silent pause. “Try it again.” She played it again, and still held the last note too long. “Oui! You are very convincing. You do not play what is written, but you play it with such confidence. Bravo! But you must play what is written. Try again.”

She did, her movements and sound complementing each other beautifully. “I would not be able to tell you any of this if I did not have the score in front of me,” Bavouzet acknowledged. “Which leads us to ask, who is more powerful? The composer or the performer?”

Bavouzet’s own musical exploration of this question in his PPI performance on Sunday, November 24 at Lincoln Hall made clear that the answer is the ever-complicated, excitingly nebulous answer of both-and: both composer and performer wield powerful swords in a joint battle to communicate musically to specific times, places, and experiences.

Born in France in 1962, Bavouzet came to the world’s attention when invited by the great conductor Georg Solti to debut with the Orchestre de Paris in 1995. His Sunday performance was a captivating choreography of sound in which his gestures translated directly into musical color and character. His hands often gave slight conductor-like gestures as though coaxing the music out of the piano; his elbows and shoulders were relaxed fulcrums of energy, and his nuanced pedaling, while exuberantly dance-like in the Beethoven and Bartók works, exalted his performance of Debussy and Ravel.

Bavouzet’s commitment to the extremely diverse characters presented in the movements of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 was so complete that it drew appreciative applause — at the end of the first movement. His performance of that movement, though, suffered from his tendency to rush, particularly within the presentation of the first theme and in its development. In the second movement, Bavouzet created intense Beethovenian fear, trepidation, and longing by capitalizing on the natural decay of each piano note, particularly in the pianissimo return of the first theme. The melody outlines a progression of incredibly tense diminished chords (pretty much the crunchiest chord used back in the day), and Bavouzet held each note until almost all its oxygen was gone. The start of the third movement provided a perfect melting release of that tension.

Following Beethoven’s “Waldstein” with Ravel’s famous “Gaspard of the Night” seems daunting, not only because both are virtuosic and demanding, but also because their sound worlds are entirely different. Bavouzet beautifully connected these two composers in his treatment of the third movement of the “Waldstein.” At one re-entrance of the rondo melody, he held the pedal down to melt the harmonies into each other in an impressionistic manner. In addition, Bavouzet carefully echoed octaves played in the right hand by voicing either the top note in the fifth finger if in a major sonority or the bottom note in the thumb if in minor. This effect, while not out of the ordinary, is certainly not written in the score and lent a personal touch to the performance.

In “Gaspard of the Night,” a three-movement masterpiece piece inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s poems of the same name, Bavouzet drew out the water fairy Ondine’s sensuousness using melancholy more than sinisterness. By taking a little over seven minutes to play the piece, Bavouzet gave each melodic note more time to expand and thus connect more significantly to the next note. Rather than permitting the background arpeggios to recede into mere impressionistic wallpaper, Bavouzet allowed them to occasionally poke through the melodic line so that each harmonic change became a deliberate turn of the gem to catch a different light. I wish he had more literally interpreted Ravel’s indication to take the climax even more slowly and thus achieve a richer depth. The genius of the whole performance coalesced in his last chord where he allowed the A-natural to bleed into the final C# major chord and used the pedal to exquisitely resolve the A-natural to the G# in the resonating strings.

I was not a fan of the second movement, “Gibet,” as Bavouzet took a more poetic approach, and the sound of tolling bells was not insistently torturous enough for my expressionist taste. But who cares when treated to a thrillingly terrifying “Scarbo”? In this famously demanding third movement, the audience experienced Bavouzet’s incredible control of ostinati (repeating notes) that could swell and abate without losing tonal clarity. His attention to descending bass lines even while all hell broke loose in the treble voices created a colossal sound universe. While pianists often play the ending gesture with humor, Bavouzet caught the audience by surprise, ending so suddenly, so quickly, and so softly that we all thought the goblin Scarbo would burst forth again in sinister revenge. Instead, the audience burst forth in astonished applause.

While we experienced glimpses of Bavouzet’s pedaling mastery in the Beethoven and Ravel works, his brilliance rose to the forefront in the consistently best stretch of the whole evening, the performance of the first seven preludes from Debussy’s “Preludes,” Book 1. He began “Dancers of Delphi” with very little pedal, and slightly rolled the opening chords; this dryness is unusual, and certainly not called for by Debussy in the score, but it gave the impression of dancers’ feet stepping on to the stage. After setting the stage, this dryness gave more room for expansion, and the first full pedal wash lent a gentle mysteriousness, evoking spirits rising to meet the dancers. Bavouzet expertly placed each layer of sound securely within the cushion of resonance allowed for by his pedaling.
The transitions between Preludes No. 4 “Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Evening Air,” No. 5 “The Hills of Anacapri” and into No. 6 “Footprints in the Snow” proved especially effective. Bavouzet ended the purple richness of the fourth prelude with simple echoing horn calls that left Lincoln Hall completely still. The fifth prelude ends in emphatic bursts of light, and Bavouzet emphasized this by bringing all his fingers together at a single point to play each note in ecstatic deliberation. He then allowed for a long pause to accentuate the starkness of the sixth prelude. It’s strange to feel completely and desperately alone in a hall full of music lovers, but that’s what happened to me when Bavouzet carefully allowed for the decay of each note within each voice, and then proportioned them so that the voices did not bleed over each other, but stood in the snow all alone with no hope of finding the other.

Finally, Béla Bartók’s piano sonata! Bavouzet infused the first movement with tremendous joy by playing the bouncing dance rhythms with a light touch and flowing swing. I prefer the more violent approach of the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, but Bavouzet’s interpretation provided a greater contrast for the second movement in all its starkness. The third movement, with its angular rhythms and orchestral colors, brought an exciting conclusion. Bavouzet’s enormous energy evoked horns, clarinets, flutes, oboes, cellos, and ended with an accelerated orchestral crash. For his encore, Bavouzet laughed and said, “Perhaps something calmer,” and ended the evening with Debussy’s popular Prelude no. 8 from Book 1, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

As the audience filtered out, I heard a number of people humming sections of the concert. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a pianist whose performance gets inside people and dwells for a time. He is not one who fights over whether the composer or performer is more powerful; rather, his strong convictions about the composers’ music reminds the audience that life is something to stay awake for, and so we take this music with us like a treasure into the night.

Jana Hanchett is a Portland pianist.

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