Claude Debussy Complete Works for Piano, Volume 5 (feat. pianist: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

A musical adventure, and Bavouzet has more than achieved what he set out to do.

Charlotte Gardner 2009

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is full of intriguing statements. In the notes for Volume 5 of his Debussy series, he’s come up with a particularly heart-warming one. He claims that it wasn’t until his 30s that he found himself truly moved by this great French composer. “I would rather describe my relationship to his music as a constant process of maturation”, he writes. Unusual words for a French pianist, and it’s also quite the maturation given that Volume 4 has won him the Instrumental category at both the 2009 BBC Music Magazine Awards and Gramophone Awards. This knowledge of Bavouzet’s musical journey, though, makes one appreciate his performance here all the more.

Volume 5 is interesting for presenting repertoire that was never really intended for public performance. Khamma, Jeux and La Boîte à joujoux were three ballets written between 1910 and 1913. Bavouzet has recorded the piano scores used to rehearse the dancers, and they are riddled with difficulties. Whilst Debussy wrote the two usual piano staves, he also added significant additional musical elements above or below them. Whilst nimble fingers are essential, the real difficulty is in creating the illusion of several layers of sound, all corresponding to different instrumental groups. One might have to simultaneously simulate rumbling cellos and brassy trumpet calls whilst maintaining a smooth orchestral line in the middle. Furthermore, the fact that the score for Jeux ranges from being genuinely unplayable in its density, to being meagrely thin, meant Bavouzet ended up rewriting it for himself. 

What this means is that this isn’t the usual sort of CD release. Normally, one knows what is coming and can simply assess how the instrumentalist in question has performed the accepted notes. Here, it’s a musical adventure for everyone, and Bavouzet has more than achieved what he set out to do. Anyone familiar with Debussy’s shimmering orchestral colouration will recognise it translated into piano form, and anyone who isn’t will find their imaginations filling in the blanks. Textural layering and instrumental colouring aside, the ballets’ contrasting moods are perfectly captured, from Khamma’s Egyptian temple at midnight, to the delightful evocation of childhood presented by La Boîte à joujou.

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