Jean-Efflam Bavouzet: Piano Recital

I’m speechless.

I don’t know how I’d managed to get through as much classical music listening, reading, YouTube viewing, and concert going and not have heard of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. What initially struck my interest and sold me on the concert was one of the names below:

It wasn’t Beethoven (x2), or Debussy or Ravel, but Boulez.
In case you don’t know (and unless you know me personally, you probably don’t), I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, overwhelmed by the music of Milton Babbitt lately, and by extension, the concepts and ideas behind the serialist movement in general, and Boulez is a very significant name in that movement, one of its biggest. What a rare opportunity, I thought, to hear it live, so I bought the ticket, no hesitation.
Now I have his autograph and one album (Pierné piano concerto), and maybe more on the way. It was magnificent. Extraordinary. Superb.
My not having heard of someone isn’t really saying much, but Bavouzet wasn’t even at all on my radar. Having lunch with a few music student friends last week (one of whom just arrived
in Germany), we got to talking about looking forward to this concert, and one of them (the one in Germany) assured me I would not be disappointed. She spoke very adamantly about the concert (the previous one of his she’d seen here in Taipei) and her jealousy at not being able to attend this one. More excited.
Day of the concert (today). I get there early, buy a ticket to see a Shostakovich concerto in June, find my seat, do a bit of reading about the Beethoven sonatas, and before long, the concert is beginning. It was not a full house, and the side facing the pianist (i.e. unable to see his hands) was nearly empty. The fourth floor was closed, but the hall ended up being more full than I’d originally thought.
Having some recent (personal) musical endeavors on my mind today, I was perhaps especially… moved by the concert, but that aside, both Beethoven’s composition and Bavouzet’s performance were stunning. Opus 81 is a lovely small(er) sonata from 1810, a gorgeous piece to open the concert, and I was already impressed. It’s not a piece I’m familiar with (sadly, and I’ve actually heard the following piece more than either of the Beethovens), but it was remarkable in its clarity and expression.
Second on the program, sandwich between two Beethoven sonatas, is Boulez’s first piano sonata. Out of novelty and rarity, more than anything, it is what interested me the most, but I would have loved to have been able to poll the audience and find out who of them knows who Boulez is, has heard his work(s), and (the real stretch) enjoys them. The first sonata is significantly shorter than the second (the first is perhaps 10 minutes, the second closer to a half hour), but no matter its length, it’s still a bold placement on a concert program, and I was super excited.
Bavouzet returns from a round of applause, score in hand. This is not surprising, and if it was for anyone, perhaps they understood why when the piece began. While I’m not going to get into all the business of trying to understand Boulez’s work, its aesthetic, its purposes, etc., I will say that of all the pieces on the program tonight, it was the one that had me on the edge of my seat the most. Perhaps it was unsettling, nervous anxiety; one could argue that. Regardless, I was on the edge of my seat; it was gripping, but it gripped me in a very different way than either of the Beethovens did. I believe there were some perplexed members of the audience, and there was obviously no perfect cadence or recognizable coda at the end, so there was a moment of pause once the piece was over. It garnered applause, but not rapturous (certainly not compared to what would come later). I was grinning.
Next was Beethoven’s 101. It’s a big piece. Played with passion and focus, my thoughts did consider the year 1816, a now-deaf Beethoven with a fancier piano, and how most people would have thought the previous piece was the one composed by a deaf guy. It is not a small piece, in contrast with the previous Beethoven sonata. The performance also seemed, felt, sounded more personal, more intimate. There was a lot to say in the sonata, and we were all able to hear it much more clearly in this work.
The piece reached its grand climax and ended. I was left blown away, not only by the stunning performance of the three pieces and the bulk of the latter two (in very different ways), but also the strategic choice of sandwiching Boulez between two Beethovens. More about that later.
I informed my fellow concertgoers (the ones I knew) that I was told there would be a signing after the concert and that I would be rushing down to get my autograph.
The latter half of the program begins, and it’s Debussy and Ravel. The challenge (for audiences) of the Debussy etudes (1, 2, and 5) is that they’re so exciting, such virtuosic pieces, that it’s almost instinctive for the audience to want to break out into applause after each one. They’re fantastic encore pieces (but little did we know, we’d get better). It also got me to thinking about the concept of the etude, how Chopin (another pretty famous French[-ified] guy) made them presentable showpieces and not just boring exercises. Debussy’s etudes are outstanding, and they were played with what seemed almost like a sickening degree of ease and fluidity. If the Boulez showed the pianist’s intense focus, the Beethoven his passion, then the Debussy etudes were just really good show-off pieces.
Next is Ravel’s Miroirs, a piece with incredible depth and color and expression. It’s not a small piece, and after Alborada del gracioso (the fourth movement), I almost accidentally broke into applause. It was moving. The fourth movement ends virtuosically and spectacularly, while the fifth and final movement ends with a quiet, deafening pause. Although there had been some coughing, sniffling, and extremely loud turning of pages at a few points, the pure, intense silence at the end of Miroirs was just as moving a moment as any other in the piece. I think the whole hall stopped breathing. And then we started clapping once we started breathing again. It was incredible, perhaps the most deeply… spiritual or moving piece of the evening. Bravo.
And we got encores. The first was a piece I’d heard twice before in concerts already in the past few weeks (check out the recent concert reviews), Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, followed by something mesmerizing that neither I nor either of my music major friends could identify, followed by Debussy’s Feux d’artifice, the last in his second book of preludes, which was punctuated by an audience-member sneeze at the worst possible time. Go listen. The encores were phenomenal. L’isle joyeuse turned our pianist into a rockstar of sorts. He was having fun, showing off, and making the whole thing look so easy. The performances were passionate and perfect. Really stunning.
We rushed down, half-with, half-ahead of the crowd to get to the autograph signing place. There were a dozen or so people in front of us, and it didn’t take long for us to get to the front of the line. Bavouzet had changed into a bright orange sweater and more civilian clothes, a beer on the table, unopened. I told him nervously and mumbled-ly “Je vous tres hereux de vous rencontrer” and then just said “I’m American.” He asked specifically where from, and I told him Atlanta, and that I saw he’d be playing in Aspen with Robert Spano, the director of our Atlanta Symphony. He asked me if I would be there (it’s in July), and I said no, unfortunately not. Before I walked on by, I asked him what the second (really amazing) encore piece was; I loved it and none of us knew. His response caught me off guard, a very emphatic “Good question!” He said it was Gabriel Pierné’s etude in Cm, op 13. and called me back over to write it down.

He said he’s working on recording all of Pierné’s pieces and recommended all of the recordings but especially the piano concerto, which I’ve already gotten. It’s on iTunes. Get it.  I haven’t listened to it yet. I’ve only been home for an hour and had to have dinner. But I must say, despite the very brief conversation, Bavouzet is as pleasant a man to speak with as he is an incredible pianist.
I can’t speak with any kind of authority here, but I did get to thinking about the French-ness of French music. Ravel, especially, is one of my favorites. I kind of thought of him tonight as the 20th century’s Chopin, the French master pianist composer who did new and important and influential and amazing things to and with music. There’s a sensual, artistic, passionate, and deep quality to so much of his music, and to all of the music on the program this evening, and it was all handled with the utmost care and respect. Bavouzet didn’t give distracting, unnecessary showy gestures or facial expressions. In fact, for the first piece on the program, it seemed as if his hands were the only thing that moved. The performance betrayed him though; he was full of emotion, but you couldn’t see it in showy ridiculous gestures. I like that.
Hands bounced a little higher (and faster) with the Boulez, and he dug into the program with greater and greater passion. Really stunning. I wondered, though, about the strategic decision of putting the two oldest pieces (the Beethovens) with the newest, and not pairing Boulez (radical modernist!) with Debussy and Ravel, but then, when you hear it all live, back-to-back, things do get to mashing around in your head and there’s a contrast that feels logical, like it should be there… like Boulez isn’t so off-the-wall after all; he has his contrasts just like anyone else: there are moments of roaring thunderous piano, and tinkery, quiet delicacy, moments of pregnant pause, fast and slow, just without all that diatonic business.
In any case, it left me with tons to think about (the history of music, French culture and musical heritage, Ravel as the 20th century Chopin [even though maybe it should be Debussy]), but one thing that is irrefutably clear is that the concert I had the privilege to attend this evening is, hands down, one of the most spectacular concerts (of any kind) I’ve ever attended. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and meeting the performer afterward was an additional, very wonderful treat.
Merci et a bientôt. 
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