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):
on the iPlayer until 23 June
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
54:22 An encore of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse (The joyful island), played with typical pizzazz by Bavouzet!
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
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