French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet talks to Francis Merson about Debussy, transcriptions and the moon in the lead-up to his performances in Sydney.

For your program at Sydney’s City Recital Hall you’ve chosen three pieces by Debussy: Clair de Lune, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. What do these pieces have in common, apart from the moon?

Well, one of the themes of this program is the night, but apart from that, I deliberately chose these three pieces as they reflect three distinct periods of Debussy’s production. Harmonically and structurally there is a huge gap from the irresistible simplicity of Clair de Lune to the complexity of La terrasse – just look at the score. La terrasse has three staves of music rather than the usual two: the texture is so subtle and complex that the composer chosen to lay it out almost like an orchestra score. The complexity of the musical phenomena and the oppositions in the piece are mind-blowing – and it’s considered a prelude! It is the emotional pinnacle of Book II of Debussy’s preludes.

Did you have a pianist whose Debussy you idolised when growing up?

No, and worse than that, when I was growing up I was not at all fond of Debussy. Nothing makes me laugh more than when someone says: “Of course you play Debussy well. You are French!” If there are any fine qualities in my Debussy it’s a result of hard work rather than some innate sensitivity. As for Ravel, it came more naturally to me, but not Debussy. This said, I always enjoyed how Gulda, Richter or Kocsis played Debussy.  

One surprise for audiences in the recital program is your own transcription of the ballet Jeux.

Yes, this is a version for single piano, as opposed to one for two pianos that I wrote 10 or 15 years ago, to play with my friend Zoltan Kocsis. It’s only when the arrangement was finished and we’d performed it several times that I discovered Jeux was the only orchestra score by Debussy not yet to be transcribed for two pianos. So it was a premiere. The score in its two piano version has been recorded by Ashkenazy and his son; and Pierre Boulez was kind enough to write a foreword for the liner notes. But this version for one pianist is, basically, madness – something I did only for the fifth volume of my complete recordings of Debussy. I recorded it in the studio without at all thinking it would be playable in concert. Finally I received so much demand for it that I decided to take on the challenge.

And Jeux is also set at nightfall, which serves the nocturnal theme of the program.

Yes, the ballet features electric lamps, which were very modern at that time. To my mind it’s some of the most erotic music ever written – up there with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The other theme of the program is evident in the two “pathetic” pieces – Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique and Liszt’s Grand Solo de Concert, which was nicknamed “pathétique” in its two piano and orchestral versions. The solo piano piece is basically conceived for orchestra – it’s hugely demanding on the soloist.

Will this be your first time playing in Australia?

I had some very good friends, including François-Frédéric Guy, come back ecstatic about the public and about the place. I’m expecting at the same time everything and just the opportunity to be open and enriched by this place. Most importantly, no matter what continent or what planet I’m on, I try to serve the beauty of the music the best that I can.

What else on the cards musically for your Australian sojourn?

The week before the recital I have three performances of Liszt’s Second Concerto, with Ashkenazy conducting the Sydney Symphony. We played together in Paris a few years ago when he chose me to replace Evgeny Kissin, who wasn’t able to perform. I’m a great admirer of Ashkenazy as a pianist, and to play with a conductor who knows the concertos so well is just fabulous.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays in Sydney from March 3-7. See here for details.