As I begin this post, it is still - just - the exact 100th anniversary of Debussy's death. This centenary year will no doubt feature a host of recordings, reissues and live events honouring the composer (we're already two 'Complete Works' box-sets into the year, and it's only March!)... but it's already difficult to imagine another experience immersing us so successfully into Debussy's world in quite the way that today's recital did.
(Photograph of JEB by Benjamin Ealovega.)
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is regarded as one of Debussy's leading champions and interpreters. He has recorded the complete piano works for Chandos (all the individual CD releases are now available in a handsome box), so he was a natural choice to put this programme together for the Barbican. As you can see from the page image below, it was a proper Claude-a-thon: a really generous selection taking us from early afternoon into mid-evening.
You might also notice that a speaker is credited - Roger Nichols, an expert in the French repertoire. The idea was to supplement the performances with introductions from RN, and conversation between RN and the pianist. Sadly, RN had to pull out of the event at short notice due to illness - but the Barbican's classical music programmer, Paul Greene, did a sterling job of filling in.
Perhaps this goes without saying for those who have heard Bavouzet perform before - but I was absolutely awestruck by his dynamic range, lightness of touch, speed, wit, precision and - even in the most abstract selections - emotional intensity. The intimacy was only heightened by the event taking place in the Barbican's 'chamber' venue, Milton Court. Hearing so much music in one sitting, and being able to see what he was doing so closely, really brought home his virtuosity - the wide array of colours he brings to the work, yet with so consistent an approach.
But it soon became clear that JEB is an eloquent communicator with words as well as music. Greene proved a perceptive and appreciative interviewer (especially considering he only had a couple of hours to prepare), and his well-chosen prompts steered the pianist into one brilliantly unexpected insight or reflection after another. You couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic or evangelical guide through Debussy's music - JEB gave us a mixture of historical anecdote, in-depth analysis of compositional techniques and comparisons to other composers (technical expertise worn very lightly), and - best of all - would talk to us from the piano, willing to play over various excerpts to clarify the points he was making.
I soon realised that even after four or so hours in his company, I could happily have listened to Bavouzet continue playing - and speaking - long into the night. Perhaps BBC Radio 3 could commission him to do a series on Debussy before the year's celebrations are over?
That may be a pipedream, but for now, perhaps I can perform one service for those of you who couldn't make the gig. JEB's Debussy box set is on Spotify - so, drawn from that survey, here is today's set 'reconstructed' into a playlist. Dive in...