St John’s, Smith Square
Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
A performance of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas that was not in some way special would be a very peculiar thing indeed. That was not, I am pleased to say, the case in this instalment of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, many of whose concerts have decamped across the river to St John’s Smith Square, whilst renovations take place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s way in general with these woks was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic, both in sound and often in interpretative strategy, I have heard. It seemed light-years distant from, say, Kempf, Gilels, or Schnabel, perhaps a little closer to Pollini, especially of old, but even in that case hardly similar. One might not always want to hear Beethoven like this, but there is no need to; I, for one, found the experience refreshing and, in the best sense, provocative.
It was the glistening tone that I noticed first in the E major Sonata, above all in the high treble. But the notes could also ‘dissolve’, Debussy-like, which I do not think was a reaction owed only or even principally to Bavouzet’s renown as an interpreter of that composer’s music. Especially during the Prestissimo second movement, the fractures of the music came very much to the fore, in as unsentimental a reading as one might imagine. There was, though, consolation to be heard in the finale, its theme certainly Gesangvoll, and almost Bachian in its dignity. A sense of proliferation, for me bringing Boulez to mind, but also of grander, perhaps more ‘Romantic’ style (Chopin?), characterised the first variation, whereas an almost pointillistic approach to the outer material of the second variation contrasted both with its predecessor and to echoes of the Liszt of similar times (the 1840s) in the second. There was continuing variety but also a strong, challenging impression of unity as the movement progressed, as if propelled by some centrifugal force (not, perhaps, entirely unlike Boulez’s conception of serialism). The counterpoint of the fifth variation struck me both by its concision and by something approaching the difficulty of the Missa solemnis. The return of the theme, dignified as before, perhaps inevitably had me think of the Goldberg Variations.
The opening theme of the A-flat Sonata initially seemed to signal a potential similarity to that of its predecessor, before going its very different way both in itself and its development. Bavouzet’s clarity and modernistic tone seemed to make this music strange once again. Icy fire characterised the Allegro molto. Again, there was no attempt to paper over the cracks; the cracks seemed almost to be the Adornian thing. There was real violence in the music’s contrasts, seemingly although perhaps not entirely unmediated. The opening of the third movement seemed to strain towards simplicity, without ever quite attaining it. There was great sadness to the arioso, without the pianist ever feeling any need to underline, let alone to milk, it. Then the fugue built up convincingly, perhaps in a little more conciliatory fashion than we had heard earlier in the sonata, although certainly not without harshness. The arioso’s return sounded all the more sad, even hopeless, yet hope was in a sense, although only in a sense, restored by the fugue in inversion. If that sounds enigmatic, then it was, which is surely as it should be. And yet, again just as it should, Beethoven’s profound humanity shone through the enigmas, even the fractures. Has there ever been a time when we need him more than now?
With the first movement of the C minor Sonata, we again seemed to look forward to Liszt, its opening downward leaps hinting perhaps at the later composer a semitone lower (and often in inversion). Likewise the ensuing dissonances, although with them it was perhaps the Liszt of old age, but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg. It was furious, without a doubt; equally, it was possessed of great integrity, if anything still more uncompromising in its modernity than what had passed before. I could not help but think that this was a performance Boulez would have admired. The clear-eyed opening statement of the second movement rendered me anything but clear-eyed. As the music progressed, there seemed an increasing sense that Beethoven was only just keeping things together. The strain was apparent; most important, it was moving. It seemed to me that Bavouzet had as complete an understanding as one could hope for as to how rhythm here is liberated by harmony. This was, I thought, a Beethoven performance of undeniable greatness: not different for the sake of it, but asserting its – and Beethoven’s – difference through a Pollini-like re-examination of the material. It shocked me but also made me smile, as absorbing as it was elevating. All Beethoven performances should, if only briefly, restore one’s faith in humanity; this one did. After which, the encore – surely something one would only risk here in very particular circumstances – was utterly apposite: Boulez’s Notations, nos 7-9.