Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet: Technical mastery in need of a little heart

April 22, 2013

No one should have any doubts about the virtuosity of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The French pianist has amassed an extensive number of recordings on the Chandos label, including complete sets of Beethoven’s sonatas (ongoing) and the piano music of Debussy, both featured in a meaty recital on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection. In concert, Bavouzet showed that he can play very rapidly and very loudly; whether his playing can engage the listener beyond the amazement it often inspires is another matter.

Bavouzet was at his best in the more purely technical set of Debussy’s 12 etudes, offered in the recital’s second half. Each poses a finger-bending challenge – reams of parallel thirds, fourths or sixths, dizzying chromatic scales, or spider web-like tangles of arpeggios – which Bavouzet tamed with calm efficiency, almost without breaking a sweat. These pieces also suited him because they are more episodic, musical kernels that set a scene concisely and then come to an end. From Bavouzet, who tends toward a no-nonsense, even aggressive approach, one mostly got the surface message: the mean-spirited poke at Carl Czerny’s five-finger exercises, the circus-like tumble of half-steps in “Pour les degrés chromatiques,” the fits and starts of trembling notes in “Pour les notes répétées,” the booming explosion of sound in “Pour les octaves.”

Results were less successful in the opening pairing of the two piano sonatas of Beethoven’s Op. 31. In both works, but especially in the often mysterious second sonata (“The Tempest”), Bavouzet pushed the fast tempos over the edge, missing some of the thematic or structural details in a somewhat slapdash way. The puckish first sonata had a brawny contrast of orchestral and chamber-sized textures, with a gossamer second movement, but many of its lacy ornamentations felt facile and a little mechanical.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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