We all have our dream programs for piano recitals. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, for his November 24th performance in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University, came up with one which would serve for me: Beethoven's "Pastorale" sonata op. 28, Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," the first seven Debussy preludes, and Bartok's only solo piano Sonata. The Beethoven was changed along the way to the Waldstein sonata, close enough. But the trouble with dream programs is that they're usually coupled with dream interpretations. Touring pianists usually have strong personalities and opinions – what are the chances his dreams would be mine?
Don't hold your breath. But many of his interpretations were so close they did feel like affirmations. I wasn't usually converted by the ones which were very different, but I was always moved to serious consideration. Technique was never the issue. True, in passages of the most hair-raising digital difficulty, Bavouzet was often not the note-perfect machine that seems de rigueur these days, even when it comes at the expense of going all out. But as the concert developed, every time I wished he had played something a different way, I could at the same time recall something else he had played just that way. His control over shadings of tone, dynamics and pedaling was superb. And yet he didn't shrink from taking risks, even when some left him hanging by his fingernails. The overall impression was one of passion, argument and engaging narrative.
The Waldstein set the course for the whole program. Bavouzet's tempo was moderate, if still plenty challenging, giving the composer's inspirations time to blossom. The pianist offered a generous whiff of the flowers, for example, near the beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement, where Beethoven seems to forget about celebrating the return to the home key and temporarily heads for la-la land. The final prestissimo was all the more electrifying, its exuberance aided by flawless octave glissandi. And yet it couldn't be called a Romantic interpretation. Bavouzet's bio mentions working closely with Pierre Boulez, and it wasn't hard to imagine the influence of the famous French composer, conductor, and theorist – always intelligent, always musical, not without hedonism but perhaps somewhat too consciously intellectual.
And yet, with "Ondine," the opening Ravel movement, I was completely carried away. The pianistic world seems to have finally found the key to "Gaspard", if the number of young virtuosi peddling the classic test piece in recent years is any indication. And yet, how often have I listened with amazement to a flawless rendition, while at the same time nostalgic for the poetry of, say, Ashkenazy's stellar recording from my formative years in the 60s. In particular, these pianists seem to forget that "Ondine" is a seduction. Bavouzet did not for one second forget! He gave the nymph all the time she needed to sing irresistibly out of her watery home – and his treatment of a couple of glissandi which morph into arpeggios was beyond perfection, utterly magical – but when it came time for her to make her move, the wave crashed with harmonious abandon, impossible to outrun.
"Le Gibet," in contrast, was unsettling, and no doubt was intended to stand out from the usual atmospherically gloomy interpretation. Bavouzet seemed to emphasize the central image of a hanged body reddened by the setting sun by putting some bite into the repeated tolling of the B-flat octave. But the text that inspired the work refers only to a bell "below the horizon" and other faint sounds. That octave was anything but, and quickly wore out its welcome.
The fantastic, and fantastically difficult "Scarbo" instantly drew us back in again as Bavouzet seemed to transmute the terrors any pianist must feel, contemplating its performance, into a totally absorbing narrative. If it had been a movie, it would have been Hitchcock. If anything I wished he had taken more of the opportunities Ravel presents to mercurially break up the often driving rhythm. But he was master of the terrifying climaxes, and the maddeningly offhand ending was perfect.
The first seven Debussy preludes finally gave us a chance to hear Bavouzet take on quintessentially French repertoire. And, while they do offer many technical challenges, unlike "Gaspard" they are nothing for a pianist of his caliber to lose any sleep over. Again the range of interpretations was fascinating. What stood out all through was Bavouzet's devotion to clarity and balance. He studiously avoided the pedal-drenched wash many pianists associate with Debussy. Too studiously in the atmospheric preludes "Voiles," which was merely restless, and "Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir," which seemed rather anxious to get indoors before curfew, but which had beautifully judged passages including the tricky final fadeout. On the other hand, "Danseuses de Delphes," "Les collines d'Anacapri," "Des pas sur la neige," and "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest" were all sharply etched, highly engaging anecdotes. Notable moments were one inspired pedal wash that added poignancy to a "melancholy memory" in "Des pas sur la neige," and the dramatically shaped final climax in the rambunctious "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest," leading to a perfect slam-bang finish. This last work is one of the few preludes that approaches "Gaspard"-like virtuosity, and again, Bavouzet's brisk but moderate tempo enabled him to put on an awe-inspiring display where many pianists merely scamper.
There was absolutely no scampering, either, in Bartok's only piano sonata, an inexorable and irrepressible work, which Bartok himself was careful to play only before the most musically sophisticated audiences of his time. Today's audiences, having been exposed to punk rock and distortion effects, are less easily fazed. The first movement's signature repeated octaves pounded home with devastating effect while surrounding outbursts cut in like a flock of hatchets – not to punish the piano or audience, on the contrary, to sculpt a thing of wild beauty like a granite crag. In the slow movement, in which the repetition is stretched out across plangent dissonances like distant tolling bells, Bavouzet's apparent aversion to atmosphere led him astray, creating a dry, even sterile artifact. However, he again tuned in brilliantly to the dangerously, even insanely exuberant finale, and the final explosion elicited a huge ovation from the sold-out crowd.
One would think Bavouzet would be about ready to drop, but he strode out and gave us "something calmer" as he wryly put it, the eighth Debussy prelude, "La fille aux cheveux de lin," for an encore. There are a couple of weaving passages, like a lover's hands running through long wavy hair, I wish he had lingered over, but even so, it was another exquisitely drawn image. If only the audience had let the final harmony ring in the ear even a little before obliterating it with their oohs and aahs.
Congratulations are in order for Portland Piano International and its new artistic director, Arnaldo Cohen, for luring Jean-Efflam Bavouzet to a rare West Coast appearance. It may not have been the performance of my dreams in every detail, but how could that ever be? It was close enough. I left the hall warmed by a master musician's touch, which unlocked so much of my innermost world and let it live out loud.
Jeff Winslow is a composer, pianist, engineer, and a member of Cascadia Composers.