Saturday, 15 January 2022

Bavouzet/Shishkin: Debussy, Liszt, Bartók, and Ravel, 13 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

Debussy, arr. Ravel and Kocsis: Nocturnes
Liszt: Concerto pathétique, S 258
Bartók, arr. Kocsis: Two Pictures, op.10
Ravel: La Valse

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Dmitry Shishkin (pianos).

A difficult choice, this: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Dmitry Shishkin in a fascinating programme of two-piano music at the Wigmore Hall, or Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes in Grieg, Strauss, and Wagner at the Barbican. It is difficult to imagine those attending the latter having been disappointed; at any rate, having tossed a coin in favour of the former, I was not. 

First, we heard Debussy’s Nocturnes. I honestly would never have guessed the opening of ‘Nuages’ had not been written for two pianos, rather than transcribed by Ravel, had I not known: testament, surely, both to arrangement and performance. (I am not sure we need worry in this context about differences of meaning between ‘transcription’ and ‘arrangement’.) We heard a wonderful freedom within metre. Darkness of ambiguity seemed, if anything, enhanced by the sound of two Yamahas rather than orchestra. Dynamics, tempo, balance, shaping: all convinced and had one think they could not have been improved on. ‘Fêtes’ sounded more different from the original, more ‘transcribed’, but that was surely the nature of the material, rendered into piano monochrome. It was a sharp, lively performance, occasionally percussive, having me think at times of Bartók. ‘Sirènes’, which Ravel also transcribed but which he admitted to having found especially difficult, was here given in a transcription by Zoltán Kocsis. I did not realise this until afterwards, but I admit to having first found the arrangement sound closest to Ravel himself (so much for my ears!) and thereafter the most enigmatic of all, which is doubtless as it should have been. In performance, there was languor enough, though it always sounded directed. 

The genesis of what we heard from Debussy, Ravel, and Kocsis was not entirely straightforward. Essentially, Ravel transcribed ‘Sirènes’ first, to accompany the first two movements, as already transcribed by Raoul Bardac. Then, eight years later, Ravel added his own versions of ‘Nuages’ and ‘Fêtes’, whilst Kocsis’s ‘Sirènes’ dates from seven decades later. However, Liszt’s Concerto pathétique is arguably more complicated (not atypical, for a composer who tended to move on quickly, creating multiple versions, rather than chiselling away at a single work). At any rate, having passed through two solo piano workings of this material, the latter far closer to the two piano version than the first, Liszt rightly settled on two pianos as offering the superior medium for the concerto contrasts of this material. Such was clear from the grand, even grandiloquent, virtuosic opening dialogue; but it was also readily apparent in melting towards more tender sounds. The sheer weight of sound impressed at times, though even then it was never monolithic. Bavouzet and Shishkin imparted a strong sense that Liszt’s music might readily have been orchestrated, but also kept one happy that it had not. It sang too, as only Liszt can. If the roulades sometimes stand on the edge of absurdity when heard for two pianos, they were despatched with conviction, glitter, and crucially, heart. Sometimes, it was difficult to credit that there were only two pianists at work. From a pianistic standpoint, this was little short of stupendous, Liszt’s rhetoric harnessed and sublimated. 

Bartók himself arranged his Two Pictures, op.10, for solo piano. Kocsis extended the idea to two pianos. It was quite a revelation to hear: imaginative and faithful, above all pianistic. ‘In Full Flower’, the first picture, sounded, just as much as in orchestral guise, as though it were well on the way to Bluebeard’s Castle, in a performance of sad nobility. Both muscular and tender, often both, it did Bartók and Kocsis proud. ‘Village Dance’ was thrillingly responsive—and responsorial. This performance captured to a tee so many facets, melodic, harmonic, metrical, and more, of Bartók’s style and meaning. Lisztian and other inheritances were refracted, remoulded, even bent to new ends. ‘New wine demands new bottles,’ as Liszt once put it.

La Valse rumbles in a different yet no less ‘authentic’ way in its two-piano version. It was fascinating to hear that opening in the aural light of Bartók. Bavouzet and Shishkin conveyed with relish Ravel’s inflections of Viennese lilt, not necessarily as one would expect with an orchestra, but on their pianos’ own terms. Perhaps there was greater extremity here; there were certainly different sounds and implications. And what a feast, again, of pianism. As an encore, we heard Ravel’s early Sites auriculaires in two short movements. A slinky ‘Habanera’ prefaced a barnstorming ‘Entre cloches,’ its spatial qualities splendidly realised.