Bavouzet/Ashkenazy/Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall (5/5)


The French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet may be in his mid-forties, but he’s going for the slow burn on this side of the Channel: he’s probably better known to audiences in Beijing (where his Beethoven has caused a sensation) and in the Lofoten islands of Norway (where he runs a piano festival) than he is to audiences in Britain.

Here his reputation rests mainly on his award-winning Debussy recordings, and on his revelatory series of Haydn sonatas for Chandos.

In an interview before playing Ravel’s ‘Piano Concerto in G’, he said the stop-start momentum of the first movement meant that making it sound ‘natural’ was its biggest challenge. He also observed that this work’s character can change according to the company it keeps: programme it next to Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Winds’, as Bavouzet often does, and it will seem Stravinskyan, but if it’s juxtaposed with de Falla, as he was going to do here, it will sound quintessentially Spanish.

Ravel rashly proposed to premiere it himself until friends pointed out that he wasn’t up to the pyrotechnics: the pianissimo Lisztean cascade with which the soloist begins is a challenge in itself, but Bavouzet despatched this with nonchalant grace, before evoking the spirits of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Gershwin in the first movement’s kaleidoscopic statement of intent. This work had emerged at a time when jazz and Josephine Baker were all the rage in Paris and, abetted by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Bavouzet brought out its hard-edged art-deco brilliance with a correspondingly dry and percussive touch. The challenge of the slow movement is to make sense of a melodic line whose softly-ruminative course runs for ten unbroken minutes: with Ashkenazy and the orchestra providing a circumambient glow, Bavouzet achieved an almost Mozartian eloquence; his pianism in the concluding Presto was both electrifying and flawless. High as a kite when taking his applause (and blowing an appreciative kiss to the jazzer-trombones), he sat down again to give a majestic account of Debussy’s tone-poem ‘La puerta del vino’.

Tackling Manuel de Falla’s ‘Noches en los jardines de Espana’ after the interval, he dazzled again. For Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia, who wound up with Debussy’s ‘La mer’, this concert was a big success, but for this flamboyant Frenchman it could mark the beginning of British stardom.