WALLACE COLLECTION /
QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL
TWO OF the debut recitals at the Wallace Collection this month have featured French pianists. Jean Efflam Bavouzet on Sunday made a lightweight impression, despite choosing Chopin's B minor Sonata to end. The best thing in it was the way he presented the second subject of the first movement - gracefully and without gush. But throughout the rest, Bavouzet's energy burnt at too low a level to hold one's interest.
Boulez's 12 brief Notations - sharply etched miniatures which he wrote in 1945, when he was still in his teens - were much better suited to Bavouzet's character as a player, because he didn't have to delve deep into his soul or sustain a long line.
Alexandre Tharaud was harder to assess last Sunday. He under-estimated the emotional depths beneath the winsome surface of Schubert's A major Sonata, D664 and, understandably, sounded unsettled in the opening movement. Yet he was very natural in Schubert's six Impromptus. Some pianists would have relaxed into them and projected character more broadly. Yet Tharaud's disciplined view allowed them to be tender and touching and he was quite vigorous, though not very fast, in the penultimate piece.
His programme was nicely planned, not too long, and he ended with four of Chabrier's pieces pittoresques. These elusive but much admired pieces refuse to do what you expect, and it's a self-effacing pianist that plays them, though Tharaud chose the rollicking "Scherzo-valse" to end, so he was pretty sure of a good round of applause.
Not surprisingly, since she's far more experienced than either of the young Frenchmen, Imogen Cooper showed much more complete awareness of the expressive depths, as well as the formal significance, of everything she played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday afternoon. She is not necessarily a better equipped pianist in a technical sense - there was a degree of vulnerability and her tone could be brittle under pressure - yet she met the challenge of the final section in Chopin's fourth Ballade with fearless bravura. And while she did nothing exactly ravishing in the Scherzo or slow movement of Chopin's B minor Sonata, she had clearly planned the whole work as a journey, and shaped the finale with as much attention to detail and certainty of purpose as any pianist I can recall.
She also showed a vivid feeling for atmosphere and colour in Debussy's Estampes, in which the piano dissolves in suggestions of a gamelan, or guitars, or the sound of rain. And in four pieces from Albeniz's Iberia, she relished dissonant crunches and incisive rhythms with infectious enjoyment. What's more, she negotiated the unplayably far- flung textures of "El Corpus en Sevilla" stylishly.
In Debussy's L' Isle joyeuse it's always hard to escape the feeling of a succession of technical hurdles (Ravel criticised it for sounding like a transcription of an orchestral piece), but if Cooper was a little short of its final sense of abandon, she got pretty close.