Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the Wigmore Hall – Imitations and Studies

Imitations and Studies – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the Wigmore Hall

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 25 May 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05w7tdx

on the iPlayer until 23 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major Op. 78 ‘A Thérèse’ (10 minutes)

Boulez: Piano Sonata No. 1 (11 minutes)

Maurice Ohana: 3 from the 12 Études d’interprétation, Book 1 (Mouvements parallèles; Quintes; Main gauche seule) (15 minutes)

Debussy: 3 from the Etudes Book I (Pour les tierces; Pour les sixtes; Pour les octaves) (10 minutes)

What about the music?

At first glance this program has the appearance of a slightly random but interesting set of composers and works; on closer inspection they are shown to have intriguing connections.

Beethoven’s middle period sonata, subtitled ‘à Thérèse’ in recognition of its dedicatee, Countess Thérèse von Brunswick, is a snip at just ten minutes and is one of the lesser known of the 32 sonatas. It also has a strange key and unusual structure, so to all intents and purposes it feels like an experimental work – yet it is concentrated in its emotion and ultimately rewarding for the listener.

The Boulez sonata, his first of three, was written when the composer – now 90 – was just 21. It was intriguingly modelled on the Beethoven work just heard – both in length and design – so it makes sense to hear the two together. Going further than Beethoven’s unusual key choice, Boulez writes using the ‘twelve-tone’ method – which means each note of the conventional Western notation has to sound before the initial note can be heard again. Twelve-tone pieces can often present challenges for audiences, but this one does still emphasise certain pitches – ‘B’ especially – and uses a wide range of dynamics and expressive nuances that make it much more palatable to the untrained ear.

Maurice Ohana is not a composer often encountered in the concert hall at all. His upbringing as an Andalusian of Jewish descent born in Morocco and eventually settling in France is reflected in the cosmopolitan nature of his music, uniting all these strands. Ohana often makes use of microtonality, using pitches between the semitones we are so used to in Western music. That of course is not possible on a tuned piano as in this concert – but we hear a flavour if his unusual harmonies in this selection of Etudes, modelled on Debussy’s equivalent works for the piano. The final etude is written for the left hand only.

Debussy’s Études are masterpieces that follow Chopin’s lead in making colourful and often emotional pieces from what are ostensibly technical exercises. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet chooses three here.

Performance verdict

An inventive program from Bavouzet, whose relatively recent recordings of Beethoven are complemented by a Boulez piece where the pianist is able to put his friendship with the composer to great authoritative use.

Bavouzet’s technical command is formidable, and comes to the fore in the studies by Ohana and Debussy, where we can hear each composer exploring the limits of the pianist through some particularly athletic writing.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

2:04 A short introduction leads to the main theme proper of the first movement (around 2:34). The music is relatively at ease here, but not a note is wasted, especially when Beethoven develops this theme – an intense section where the melody twists around but never beyond recognition. The tune dominates but Beethoven’s continued stress of the unusual F sharp tonality creates an unusual form of tension in this performance.

9:38 Bavouzet moves quickly into the second movement, where the first tune has a clipped melody, then the second sounds like two fingers chasing each other repeatedly around the keyboard.

Boulez

14:13 Like the Beethoven, the music seems very sure of itself right from the off. Although this is what is known as a ‘twelve tone’ piece, certain pitches come to the fore and there is an unmistakeably expressive shape to each statement. As the movement progresses there are some particularly crunchy discords, and often a longer phrase is followed by a flurry of notes in a downward descent. The movement ends convincingly at a lower pitch.

19:46 A wiry sound to the lower edge of the piano as this movement starts, and then the mood gets a bit more frivolous – with the ‘chasing’ around the keyboard as experienced in the Beethoven. This more ‘playful’ movement, which still sounds quite straight faced (in the manner of its creator, perhaps!) leads to an uncompromising and perfunctory finish.

Ohana

26:50 – the first etude, a study in parallel motion, starts at the extremes, with the right hand high and the left hand low. The inflections in the melody are full of Eastern flavour, then some of the chords are clumped together before a firm end. This is a virtuoso piece that has a greater rhythmic profile

31:37 – a cool profile to the beginning of Etude no.5, which is a study in the hands playing in fifths. The irregular rhythms make the music feel less secure, but the Eastern flavour is there once again in some of the softer melodies.

36:54 – a study for the left hand only, beginning immersed right at the bottom of the piano but soon ascending to the heights. Ohana asks a lot of the pianist here, and it is difficult to believe that some of the gymnastics here are for just the one hand, as this study flies along – until a stately slower passage.

Debussy

43:24 (Pour les cinq digits) (For the five fingers) A deceptive piece this, as it starts with a simple scalic motif but then moves about restlessly before filling out considerably.

46:38 (Pour les tierces (For the thirds) As the title indicates, this study uses a lot of smaller chords made up of thirds, Debussy giving a unique rocking motion to the music. If anything by the end the music is also a study in octaves as well as thirds.

50:36 Pour les octaves (For the octaves) Some big stretches for the hands in this piece, often playing an octave apart and at quick motion. Then in a typical move for Debussy we suddenly arrive at an emphatic finish in a key that is at once a logical but also surprising move.

Encore

54:22 An encore of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse (The joyful island), played with typical pizzazz by Bavouzet!

Further listening

With the emphasis still on studies and modern music, an interesting – if challenging – next step are some Studies by Conlon Nancarrow, arranged for instrumental ensemble. These were originally written for a ‘player piano’ – that is, a piano that plyed itself – because the music was thought to be too difficult for human performance. Some pianists do defy gravity to play it, but the versatility of the music is shown by the ease with which it transfers to instruments. Nancarrow’s fiercely original voice can be heard in technicolour here

For more concerts click here

Stravinsky – Works for piano and orchestra

Featured recording: Stravinsky – Works for piano and orchestra (Chandos)
stravinsky-bavouzet

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a specialist in 20th century piano music, teams up with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra to present Stravinsky’s complete music for piano and orchestra. Happily this includes the wonderful Petrouchka!

What’s the music like?

Stravinsky was not a piano virtuoso in the way fellow Russians Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were, but he developed his own distinctive style of writing for the instrument.

This new collection from Chandos brings together some of the grittier works for the combination with functional titles – Movements, Capriccio, Concerto for piano and wind) with the dazzling colours of his second ballet Petrouchka. For this Bavouzet had to adapt his own routine as a soloist to go and sit in the orchestra.

Stravinsky writes with little sentiment when using the piano, and Movements, the Capriccio and the Concerto all tend to explore the instrument as a form of percussion rather than outright lyrical content. So we get punchy syncopations, spicy chords and incisive rhythms, as a matter of course – but in some of the slower moments of the Concerto there is an unexpected depth of feeling when the piano is pitted with slow brass. The Capriccio, too, can sparkle in places, with some florid writing for the right hand that seems to derive from the Baroque period.

Petrouchka, on the other hand, is a riot of melody, a circus full of orchestral tricks, with brilliant, showy figures and thrilling mixes of colour.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. The ballet receives an ideal performance in vivid sound, its orchestral inventions caught by Tortelier with crisp ensemble, sudden moments of fragility and out-and-out duels between the instruments. This bright, invigorating music is ideally contrasted by the gritty Movements, with its terse musical language.

The performances of the Capriccio and Concerto are terrific, the former with some wonderfully exuberant outbursts and the former taking time for contemplation in its slow movement. That said, the moment when then piano barges into the conversation of the winds (1’33” into the disc) is the dramatic equal of anything in the ballet.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Stravinsky may be a grumpy old so and so at times in his music, but some of his finest invention is here!

Listen on Spotify

Bavouzet’s recordings are not on the streaming service yet, but samples from each track can be heard here