Over the past decade or so, David Hurwitz and I covered various individual volumes in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s ongoing Haydn series for Classicstoday.com. Chandos has now reissued all 11 CDs together in a boxed set. No better Haydn sonata cycle on a modern instrument exists, period.
Rather than following a numeric or chronological ordering, each disc finds Bavouzet mixing and matching works to create varied and well-contrasted programs. As a Haydn stylist, Bavouzet’s technically immaculate and intelligently stylish playing has few equals. While he observes most repeats, he only plays cadenzas, final chords, and codas (when applicable) on the second go-rounds. Nor does his liberal ornamentation lose proportion or draw attention away from the composer.
The Variations in F minor provide a good point of entry into Bavouzet’s fusion of pliable, vocally oriented phrasing and strong rhythmic focus. He also offers Haydn’s original shorter cadenza/coda as an appendix. By contrast, Bavouzet’s brash and witty dispatch of the C major Sonata No. 48’s outer movements totally avoids the clipped preciosity that many others bring to this music.
Indeed, there’s much to learn from the sophistication with which Bavouzet scales his dynamics and applies color and timbral variety to textural strands, sometimes going against “tradition”. For example, his portato phrasing in some of the unaccompanied melody lines in the slow movement of the final E-flat sonata conveys uncommon grit and urgency, rather than generically rounding them off. The sparse passages in the C major Sonata No. 60’s first movement evoke woodwinds in quiet conversation, which makes the tutti chords sound all the more surprising in context.
Then there is the extraordinary evenness of Bavouzet’s rapid scales, dotted rhythms, double notes, and trills, notably in the E-flat Sonata No. 51. Such mastery, however, doesn’t preclude Bavouzet’s attention to important inner lines and bass note accents. The pianist lavishes as much care over the early divertimenti as he does in the serious-minded A-flat Sonata No. 31, C minor Sonata No. 33, B minor Sonata No. 47, and slow movements opening the D major Sonata No. 56 and C major Sonata No. 58.
I also should mention the A major Sonata No. 12’s Menuet, where Bavouzet became so fascinated with its minor-key Trio that he included his own ruminations on the music as a short bonus track. Such sincere creative gestures should be encouraged. Chandos’ 99-page booklet includes a lovely new essay by the pianist, plus Marc Vignal’s original annotations for each volume in Stephen Pettitt’s English translations. An essential acquisition for anyone who cares about Haydn and great pianism.