BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Sonatas Vol 2, Nos 11 - 21
Not every track on these three CDs is perfection but they proclaim an artist of exceptional calibre establishing a position as an important player of Beethoven. And without doubt he is a quite wonderful pianist, it seems to me, in his prime, with a thrust and command of brilliance and musical energy that are controlled by a most likeable personality. We’ve come to admire him in many composers, and in a touching contribution to these booklet-notes he wonders if he can justify adding another Beethoven sonata cycle to the many already available. My answer is an enthusiastic yes.
Listening to him in pieces which articulate Beethoven’s journey from his first maturity to his ‘second period’, you sense, all over again, how it obviously gave the composer pleasure to demonstrate how what is expressed is indissolubly linked to its technical execution, both for him and for the pianist; the one illuminates the other. The compositions soon leave the amateur pianist behind and indeed disregard the capacities of all would-be performers, as well as the audience. I believe it was to someone complaining the piano music was so difficult that Beethoven expressed the view that ‘struggles and difficulties were not obstacles to be avoided but welcomed as a means of reaching the heights, good features in a composition therefore, the difficulties for the performer included…since what is difficult makes one sweat’. Now go home and practise.
Characteristic of Bavouzet everywhere is an ineluctable forward movement, a thrust and passion for what is to come, in the light of what we’re hearing now and what we’ve heard a moment ago. His freshness and directness are delightful, the virtuosity often breathtaking, but his control is as much musical as technical. A truly exciting interpreter, he’s able to make you feel how the total structure of a Beethoven sonata, not just the surface, has an audible power. You may notice small lapses in acuteness of perfectly judged expression – I think very few – but the dynamic life of the music is always there, together with a concern for its character and the achievement and articulation of the larger shapes.
There are pianists who persist in abusing the Waldstein Sonata as a bravura work and I’m so glad he isn’t among them. It is the only one in the canon of 32 in which all three movements begin pianissimo, and the cumulative span of the quiet sections in the outer movements, so difficult to sustain on today’s powerful instruments, creates panoramas that have been likened by Alfred Brendel to sound-spaces unfolding before the musical eye. Beethoven’s pedalling instructions in the finale continue to fox many players, with tonic and dominant harmonies in the ‘mountain’ theme flowing into and out of each other as part of a vision of encompassing high and low, near and far, clear and obscure. The transparent opalescence Bavouzet achieves in the rondo theme is to be savoured and wondered at.
So is the prestissimo coda, at the very end, released as if from a coiled spring and as exciting as I’ve ever encountered it. Bavouzet excels in such inspirations and there are other examples at the close of the G major Sonata, Op 31 No 1, and the Pastoral Sonata, Op 28 – a particularly balletic one, this, thrown off with exceptional grace. By the time you reach such moments you have come to cherish this player’s immaculate rhythm and strict timekeeping, which has nothing to do with swallowing a metronome. Playing a tempo with this degree of élan and finish derives from a discipline that Bavouzet may have learnt to adhere to in his days of studying Ravel with Pierre Sancan at the Paris Conservatoire. Ravel would have loved it while doubtless hating every note of Beethoven.
The three sonatas in the Op 31 group are all successes, the ‘elemental’ D minor (No 2) ranking as a notable addition to its already distinguished discography. Forget the Tempest nickname, attributable to the unreliable Schindler, and follow perhaps Czerny’s supposition that the motion and character of its finale may have derived from a view of horses and riders passing by Beethoven’s window. I saw somewhere recently the E flat Sonata, Op 31 No 3, described as ‘chatty’ and liked that. Bavouzet can do many things and reminds us that Beethoven isn’t always heroic and high-minded. He had a liking for the graceful and elegant, as in this sonata’s Minuet; and there is another example in the B flat Sonata, Op 22, a work which was the composer’s farewell to the 18th century.
I mentioned small lapses in the acuteness of expression. You don’t identify them by comparing Bavouzet to Brendel or to anyone else; he is his own man. But in the first of the Sonatas quasi una fantasia, Op 27 No 1, there is a finger slip at bar 9 (second time round) in the opening section which should not be there in the finished product. And someone was nodding when it came to the English version of the pianist’s contribution to the booklet: the seven crescendos followed by a sudden drop to piano occur not in the ‘single theme of the finale’ of Op 26 but in the theme of the Variations first movement. This became a hallmark, a fingerprint, of Beethoven’s style, and in this early instance of it I have heard other pianists convey the effect better, among them Schiff and Barenboim, and Rudolf Serkin from way back.
‘Tout pour la musique, rien pour le piano.’ A fine French pianist, Yves Nat, little remembered now, said that (and he was very good in Beethoven). In sum, my impressions of Bavouzet are of his selfless concentration, understanding, boundless musical energy, and in everything offered his command of timing and of the glorious variety and drama of these compositions. I retain too a sense that their space and reach have been encompassed.