A Soft Touch Brings Out The Best in Pianist Bavouzet

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's piano recital Saturday afternoon at the Terrace Theater left a mixed impression. Bavouzet is clearly intelligent and ambitious -- not many pianists dare take on the cosmic abstractions of Beethoven's gigantic Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier," a work I have heard in concert perhaps three times in my life. At his best, Bavouzet also is exceedingly musical (Ravel's "Une barque sur l'ocean" could not have been more nuanced and aquatic).

And yet the moment Bavouzet ventures to play louder than a moderate mezzo-forte, his tone becomes stiff and clangorous. Indeed, to put it plainly, on Saturday he seemed something of a banger -- not a thoughtless or insensitive banger but a banger all the same. Strangely, it seemed deliberate: Perhaps he is accustomed to playing in larger halls, where it is necessary to project one's tone to thousands of listeners (the Terrace Theater holds a more moderate 500). And Bavouzet's approach might also have been more satisfying in other music (he is renowned for his Prokofiev, in which percussive steeliness can be a virtue). But his program of works by Beethoven and Ravel, in this particular house, was only fully successful when Bavouzet played softly, which, when he does, he does very gracefully.

The "Hammerklavier" is a massive work, longer than all but two of Beethoven's symphonies, and not at all easy for pianist or casual listener. The seraphic third movement, in particular, is so otherworldly and near-improvisatory in its form that, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, it "resists the intelligence almost successfully." Never before had silence been "composed" to such an extreme: If rests are generally a momentary interruption of music, here the sounding notes seem a break in an overwhelming stillness. Bavouzet played the movement with the rapt concentration it deserves. The concluding fugue is essentially unplayable at the speed Beethoven asked; Bavouzet could not escape the inevitable but did come closer than many other pianists to taming the movement's furies.

I liked Bavouzet's way with Ravel's "Oiseaux Tristes" ("Sad Birds"), which was played in a brightly modernist manner, as though it were an early work by Olivier Messiaen. In general, Bavouzet's interpretations of the "Miroirs" and "Gaspard de la Nuit" were warm and poetic when the volume was down, stentorian and prosaic when played forcefully, and it was difficult and somewhat frustrating to try to reconcile the two impressions.

The concert was presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, as part of its Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes piano series.

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