Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Amid Two More Superb Cycles

It's been a good year for Beethoven piano sonata recordings (and I'm working on a separate piece focused on 2012 Beethoven piano recordings). Bavouzet's new Beethoven cycle faces much stiffer competition than his also-in-progress Haydn set (see below), of course, but this three-CD box is dazzlingly good. It has the three sonatas of Op. 2; the "Grand Sonata," Op. 7; the three sonatas of Op. 10 plus No. 1's original Prestissimo finale and the Presto WoO 52 that was also jettisoned from No. 1; the Pathetique, Op. 13; and the two Op. 14 sonatas. 

He's using a Steinway, as opposed to the Yamaha in his Haydn. And though he's never too heavy-handed, he definitely is not playing these works as though they are Haydnesque (even though Op. 2 was dedicated to the older composer), giving them a broad dynamic range -- which is part of how consistently he follows Beethoven's markings, unlike his main Beethoven competition this year, H.J. Lim and her super-cheap (on iTunes; on CD, it was about average cost) complete set on EMI, whose playing, though exciting, was rough and not given to observing fine details.

(By the way, Lim's cycle deliberately omitted the two little Op. 49 sonatas -- which despite their numbering predate the Op. 2 sonatas -- because they were published without Beethoven's consent. I trust that Bavouzet and Chandos will not follow suit. Actually, given Bavouzet's demonstrated excellence in both Haydn and early Beethoven, and his devotion to uncovering rare material both here and in Haydn, I'm hoping that as an appendix to this project, he includes the earliest Beethoven sonatas, which are usually omitted [Emil Gilels's death-shortened cycle being the rare exception] from Beethoven cycles because they were not published with opus numbers.)

I do not mean to imply that Bavouzet is literal or cerebral or that the care he takes in following Beethoven's performance indications leads to cautiousness. Far from it; consider, for two of many examples, the lively finale of the First Sonata and elegantly vivacious Allegro con brio that opens the mighty Third Sonata. The technical aplomb with which Bavouzet hurdles Beethoven's difficulties (no blurred rhythms here, which means the first movement of No. 2 comes off much better than usual) allows a degree of polish that far surpasses some more famous pianists' Beethoven, yet it still has considerable verve to go with its unsurpassed clarity. I look forward eagerly to further installments in this project.

Haydn's piano sonatas have not so often been well served. There are the too-heavy readings of pianists who want to show the sonatas are as great as Beethoven's by playing them as they would Beethoven's own. And in reaction to that, two other schools: lightweight readings making Haydn a nothing more than a quaint salon charmer, and dry, dull readings exuding shame that the player's using a modern piano, but ostentatiously eschewing the instrument's resources as a sort of penance. None of this is Haydn's fault; his sonatas, especially the later ones, are marvelous explorations of the still-evolving sonata form, by turns witty and emotional without overdoing either. Bavouzet, one of the prize-winners in the first Honens International Piano Competition (1992), seems to understand their idiom(s) perfectly.

There have been raves for the first three volumes of this French pianist's Haydn cycle, and I can hear why. He exploits the tonal shadings of a modern grand piano without losing the essential elegance of Haydn; he ornaments liberally, giving repeats more sense of spontaneity; his playing sparkles and fizzes with energy and never gets too muscular. He avoids all the aforementioned pitfalls of Haydn style with aplomb. By the way, the Variations are here because they apparently started as a sonata movement; Bavouzet's research into their confusing origins included looking at the manuscript, and he found a pre-publication version that differs, which is why the Variations come with an appendix: an earlier version of the conclusion that includes a shorter cadenza. That Bavouzet can be so scholarly yet not ever sound like a pedant is part of what makes his Haydn so great. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.