Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has arranged his cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas chronologically in order of composition, meaning this final instalment encompasses the biggest of Beethoven’s hitters: the Appassionata, Hammerklavier and Opus 109, 110 and 111 included.
I think it’s fair to say that Bavouzet’s approach has divided opinion. If Artur Schnabel or Emil Gilels are your go-to Beethoven pianists, then Bavouzet’s lean-and-mean textures – apparently achieved with a minimum of pedal, and fingers so transparent that they must be see-through – locate other impulses inside this music which might not appeal. Known primarily as an interpreter of Debussy and Ravel, Bavouzet views Beethoven as not just a progressive, but also a Modernist. This Beethoven is determinately non-sentimental (as already demonstrated by Bavouzet’s chilling, near-dystopian take on the Moonlight Sonata in volume 2 of his cycle) with a knack of clarifying form by emphasising moments of fracture. Bavouzet clearly follows a lineage of French Beethoven that begins with Yves Nat and hits peak chichi streamlined Modernism as Pierre-Laurent Aimard records the concertos with Harnoncourt. Except that Bavouzet remains his own man.
So much to enjoy here, so much that makes me want to listen again. Perhaps perversely I began my deep dive into this set with the final sonata, Opus 111, which contains qualities that recommend the set as a whole: a sense of urgent dispatch, the intensity of Bavouzet’s rhythmic flow, the sheer unadorned beauty as those final double-trills seem to transcend the sonata ideal, and perhaps music, into the fabric of sound itself.
The muscle Bavouzet brings to the Hammerklavier is athletically honed rather than stodgy. Beethoven’s Fugue becomes a high-wire act again; Bavouzet plays the notes expertly, yes, but with an improvisational freedom that lets them take over the asylum. I also admire the almost disinterested air with which he tackles Opus 90, letting Beethoven’s material tell its own story – which is enough.