The French pianist talks about life, music and why Debussy used to make him cry.

So what attracted you to the piano?

I grew up in a musical environment. My mother was a music teacher and I grew up in a region in France called Lorraine near Germany in a city called Metz. I did my regular studies there. I learned several instruments, which I think is a very good thing when you are a young musician. I studied oboe, percussion for almost ten years and piano.

Metz was at that time – in the 70s and 80s – a very important town for contemporary music. Every year there were major festivals for new musical creations. I had the opportunity to meet and hear them explaining their pieces – all the great composers from Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen and Kagel. And this of course, even if it happened only a couple of days a year, was opening my ears to a new sound world. I also studied electronic music there. At that time all the synthesisers were analogue and not digital like today, but nevertheless I had a rather complete musical education.

Then I continued my studies in Paris. I had the great fortune to be the last student of Pierre Sancan. He was a fantastic musician. He was a composer himself. And of course when you have a man of this stature as a piano teacher you can well imagine that things went far beyond purely piano things. Most of the time the lesson would start with two piano improvisation with him. He would just point to the second piano and say let’s see what you can do with some harmonic things that he was playing on the other piano. He was a marvellous man really. He was a major figure in my personal life. And I’m now talking to you from his house in Normandy, which I bought a long time ago! He was very important to me.

You gained a reputation early on for avant-garde music. Was there a tension at the time between that and traditional repertoire?

Very interesting question. There were a lot of tensions. Not only with the so-called avant-garde music but also with jazz. My first teacher at the Paris Conservatoire – not Sancan, the one I had just before him – when he heard me playing a little bit of jazz he said to me, “Don’t play jazz”. In French it’s vous salissez votre âme, meaning, you put dirt in your soul. It’s quite a statement! If you played three notes of jazz in the 80s at the Paris Conservatoire you would be picked out by the teacher next door. Oh yes, there was a lot of tension. Of course everything changed very quickly I would say in the middle of the 80s. Suddenly you had a very good national jazz band, and a fantastic jazz class at the Paris Conservatoire itself. So things have moved, but before that there was a lot of tension.

Sancan was very open-minded. When I told him that I was listening to the music of Pierre Boulez he respected that very much. He would say: “I’m terribly sorry I don’t understand this music. I can’t help you but I think it’s good you play it.” That was a very healthy attitude. Sancan’s language as a composer would be post-Ravelian – beautiful, but not really what you would call avant-garde. When I dared to play Stockhausen’s Klavierstück for my debut in New York and Paris back in 1987, he was amazed at how I could memorise this piece because for him it was a little bit like Chinese. But he encouraged me to play. No, Sancan was very open-minded, but that was not the case of many of the teachers. Oh no.

Your biography says that you were ‘discovered’ in 1995 by Solti. What was that all about?

I’m very happy that you mention this because I would not have ended this interview without mentioning his name. Actually, two days ago I played for the opening season of the London Philharmonic and I was wearing his ‘frac’ – his tails that Lady Solti very kindly gave me. So you can imagine how proud I am of this.

Solti was a musical diplomat. I played several times for him in his last two years of his life – a variety of works. He asked me to play Mozart, Liszt and even Wagner. I played for him of course Bartók and a lot of Beethoven, but they were all private sessions where he would coach me for a couple hours, either at his home in London or in Paris when he came to conduct. Of course that was tremendously inspiring and it was very important for me because it reinforced me in my own musical convictions.

One day, exactly the 17th of June 1997, he came with a letter from the Orchestre de Paris saying that they agreed to add Bartók’s Third Concerto with me as soloist on the program which was supposed to be only Mahler’s Fifth. That was an incredibly elegant gesture because he never promised me anything concert-wise. He was always asking me, “oh please do come back with the Mozart concerto to play for me”. Then he came one day with this letter of invitation to be on stage with him. And of course playing Bartók, a composer whom he had met and with whom he had actually studied for a while! It was like a dream come true. The concerts were supposed to be in 1998. Unfortunately the Maestro died in September 1997 so I was never on stage with him. But I think the kick that he wanted to give to my career did happen, because Pierre Boulez took over that concert and from then on Boulez invited me to several very important venues. And that was the beginning of a new level of career for me.

“I became hypersensitive to the music of Debussy, up to the point where three notes would put me very close to tears”

I first heard you playing Ravel on MDG back in 2003. And coincidentally Boulez famously embraced rather late the music of Debussy and Ravel. Was it the same with you?

No, but I do remember I was thinking a lot of Boulez when I recorded the Ravel set, especially in pieces like Ondine and Une Barque sur l’Ocean. I was almost picturing myself being conducted by Boulez. Which is actually an inspirational tool I use in some repertoire. I do think of Solti, for example when I play Liszt and Bartók or when I dare to play the transcription of Tristan. And what is interesting is that Sancan was a great master of the impressionists. He played the Ravel in a very extraordinary way. Strangely enough I always felt very, very close to the music of Ravel, which is in a way, radically different from Debussy.

Ravel most of the time uses – it sounds a little banal – but he uses melodies, long melodies. You can hardly ever find long melodies in Debussy’s music. Also the structure of Ravel pieces is very ‘classic’ in a way. Proportions are one of the most important things in his art. I don’t want to say that proportion is not important in Debussy, but Debussy pieces it is the architecture that’s absolutely revolutionary. No two single pieces of Debussy fit the same pattern. In other words the music of Debussy is, in a way, much more complex to digest and to understand. That’s probably one of the reasons why, despite being French, I feel very close to the music of Ravel but almost not at all to the music of Debussy.

Although I played it and studied it, and of course as a young French pianist beginning your career you are asked to play some of the Préludes, but I’m not so sure I understood at that time the emotional power of the music of Debussy. This came much later, in my mid thirties almost. And then that was a real revelation! I suddenly had a taste of the almost unbearable emotional level of the music of Debussy. And when I immersed myself completely in that world and had the opportunity to record for Chandos the complete music of Debussy. It was a very interesting moment in my life, when you are almost infected by a musical world that you cannot escape (I gather that Wagnerian fans have the same feeling with Wagner’s music), it became like a drug – literally – with some very strange effects. I became hypersensitive to the music of Debussy up to the point where three notes of his music would put me in an emotional state, very close to tears. It was very bizarre. It passed. It’s not anymore now, but now I do place Ravel and Debussy extremely high in my own musical pantheon. But true also for me, that although they are called impressionists and they have many things in common – their nationality, the fact that they were living in the same period, they met the same people, they heard the same music and they almost met in the same places – but they are completely, radically different.

You’re playing Beethoven in Australia and also are part way through recording a cycle of the sonatas. How do you use live performance to inform your studio work?

Interesting question. Preparations for concert and preparations for studio are not the same. In the studio you need to have your ideas very clear. You need to know exactly where you want to go. But you don’t need to obviously deliver them all at once because you know you can stop and start again if you fail, or if you are not satisfied with the result. It’s almost like a film director who needs to know what he will shoot, but after the shooting it needs editing. Which is absolutely crucial for any movie, as we know. It’s a little bit the same for a CD. On the other hand, you can’t stop in the middle of a performance. For the theatre you need to have the flow, which cannot be interrupted in any way.

The French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch put it wonderfully in a text where he said something very interesting about the virtuoso aspect of music. I think he wrote that in his essay on Liszt. He said that the virtuoso needs to hit the right notes only once, and this only time is when he’s on stage with the pressure of the public – regardless of if he missed it when he was at home in his living room. What the virtuoso needs is to be able to make the jump, but only once when he is on stage. So that is a state of mind that you need to prepare for a concert.

For Beethoven I need to have a lot of contact with the piece. Les Adieux was the very, very, very first Beethoven sonata I played in public as a youth, but nevertheless my view of the piece has changed, hopefully for the better. But I need to play it in the concert because, let’s face it, Beethoven is the composer who asks the most from us in performance. To play Beethoven well you need to be an architect, a poet and a virtuoso, and on these three aspects he’s really asking us to go beyond our limits. I can’t think of another composer who asks for these three major aspects of music making to be realised at such a high level. And the intensity of his music – let’s think about the last movement of the Appassionata – it’s like an earthquake when you play this music – physically for the pianist and probably for the audience too. And so you need to have full control if you want the earthquake effect to be realised. It’s very important to realise this in concert so that you can recreate this tension in the studio.

I must say that I really love the studio, unlike some of my colleagues. They are kind of cold in the studio environment because they miss the public – those 2000 pairs of eyes that are on you and the atmosphere that that creates. For me, I like the environment of the studio. I am never restrained. I like the fact that it’s possible to go even further than your limit and to take a lot of risks. Of course I also take risks on the stage (and sometimes I pay the price for that) but I do feel at home in both situations.

Tell me something about the Bruno Mantovani piece you are playing? I gather it’s actually autobiographical?

I heard Mantovani’s music over ten years ago before knowing the man. He’s still young, but then he was a very young composer and he was known as a Boulez protégé. And a very important concert programmer in Germany gave me his music to play in a concert. It was a quintet for piano and strings called Blue Girl with Red Wagon. And I absolutely fell in love with this piece of music. I thought it was one of the most interesting and intelligent pieces that I had heard for a long time – and such a smart use of jazz idioms. And then I met the man and we became very good friends. Blue Girl with Red Wagon ends on very specific chord, which has almost the magical effect of the Tristan chord, and my wife, who is a musician, was struck by the beauty of this chord. When he was asked to write a piano piece, he dedicated it to me and when he gave me the manuscript he told me, “it is not only for you but it is you – like a musical portrait”. And guess what? The piece starts with this chord that my wife loved so much from the previous piece! In the Livre de Jeb, which is a play on words and also my initials, he use also some jazz effects but they are very subtle. One of the things you admire most in the music is actually his intelligence – his intelligence and his timing. This is a composer I really cherish and very much. And I’m very proud of this piece.

So as a musical portrait of you, what do you think he’s captured in the music?

Do you think I’m going to tell you? [laughs] No, but as a joke I say that when you play the music that no body knows you have a responsibility. A bad performance of Appassionata cannot destroy the Appassionata, because everybody knows it and the piece is recognised as a masterpiece. A bad performance will not damage the reputation of the piece. But when you play music that nobody knows your goal is to make the music loved by the audience. And because it is the first time, if they don’t like it they will probably not give it a second chance. Now, when on top of this the music is supposed to be you, you have a second responsibility. Because if they don’t like the music, they may not like you either! No, but of course this is a joke. It’s definitely very lively. And it’s challenging. My wife used to say after the piece ended, “now you know with whom I’m living for the past 30 years!”

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Beethoven, Ravel and Mantovani at City Recital Hall, Sydney on November 17 and at Melbourne Recital Centre on November 25