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Review: A tale of two concerts for French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Spivey Hall

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brilliantly performed Debussy's “Préludes."

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made his Atlanta debut in a recital of music by Beethoven and Debussy on Saturday afternoon at Spivey Hall. The 40-year-old pianist has been getting increasing attention in recent years, both for his recordings and his work on the concert stage. He is featured on the cover of the current issue of Pianist magazine and was named 2012 Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards, based upon an adjudicated review of his recordings.

The Spivey appearance came across almost as two different concerts.

The first half was a pair of Beethoven piano sonatas: No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 22, and No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26. In the spring, Chandos released a three-CD set of Bavouzet’s recordings of the first 10 Beethoven sonatas. One would naturally assume, then, that his current performances of No. 11 and 12 are on the docket for the next release, the intention being to record all 32 of them.

Although the printed program listed them in numerical order, Bavouzet inverted the sequence without announcement, playing No. 12 first.

On the one hand, reversing the order in concert makes a certain sense in that No. 11 makes for the splashier ending — even with the restraint the Allegretto tempo imposes upon its final movement — than does No. 12’s more imaginative design and pianissimo conclusion. Argument to the contrary would be that No. 11 should have gone first not because of numerical order per se, but because it is the last of Beethoven’s formally “classical” early group of sonatas; No. 12 is the first demonstration of his experimentation with form and his deliberate efforts to break from the formal restrictions of the past.

In both, Bavouzet emphasized the classical aspects of performance practice rather than premature pretenses toward Romantic inclinations, harking back to Haydn rather than forward to Schubert. The only real oddity was the pianist’s tendency to make some of the notes marked “sf” a bit overemphatic, sounding somewhat like cannon shots on the hall’s new Hamburg Steinway and thus a bit annoyingly overdone.

For the second half, Bavouzet performed the complete Book I of Claude Debussy’s “Préludes,” written in 1909 and 1910. Unilke many other pianists, Bavouzet takes a crisp approach to these pieces rather than a quasi-atmospheric one. It works well and is refreshing, as clear as spring water. And it is clearly in his blood.

Contrary to popular labeling, Debussy disliked use of the term “Impressionism” in association with his music. He was instead influenced by the canon of the French Symbolist movement — more aesthetically akin to Mallarmé than Monet — from which he directly drew texts and themes for his music. Likewise, to some extent, he drew from the Parnassian movement, which preceded it (the title of  the eighth Prelude, “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” for example, comes from a poem by Charles Leconte de Lisle). Bavouzet’s performance reflected a deep understanding of that aesthetic distinction.

An encore was forthcoming: “Feux d’artifice” (“Fireworks”), the final Prélude from Book II, as an animated showpiece to punctuate the end of the recital.

From my perspective, as well as that of a few avid listeners in the audience who know Bavouzet’s recordings well, the lustrous second half of the concert outshone the first.

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