Dumont sparkles at Bordeaux piano festival

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 20.11.2014

The fifth annual Bordeaux piano festival, l’Esprit du Piano, concludes nine days of keyboard music on Friday Nov. 21 with Henri Barda playing works by Mozart, Brahms and Chopin. French pianophiles and a few visitors from abroad have been crowding into the concert halls, theaters and churches of Bordeaux to hear a variety of performers -- some established, others on their way up.

The event does not quite rival the more extensive La Roque d’Anthéron Festival as a piano extravaganza but has in its brief life attracted such headliners as Ivo Pogorelich and Aldo Ciccolini. This edition featured Boris Berezovsky as the main international star, paired with violinist Vadim Repin for a series of duos. Two veterans of the London International Piano Competition, Natasha Paremski and Behzod Abduraimov, were other highlights of the solo program. 

But the participant most likely to develop into a major artist on the world scene was François Dumont, 29, an outstanding young Frenchman whom I heard in the grand surroundings of the church of Notre Dame in central Bordeaux. Musically mature beyond his years, he brought the audience to their feet and prompted two encores after his Bach, Chopin and Ravel.

Dumont’s highly expressive performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto  (BWV 971) jolted listeners into another world with the forte opening chord followed by the infectious theme, a figure that returns throughout in this classic ritornello structure. The music is so simple on the surface that some critics have accused Bach of rank populism. University of Oxford scholar Laurence Dreyfus has written that Bach was guilty of seeking “to accommodate himself with the audience”.

No such commercialism, even the 18th-century variety, was evident in Dumont’s masterly interpretation. The forward motion of the piece never faltered. The light echo of the stonework church was far from a distraction. In fact Dumont told me afterward that he took the cavernous acoustics into account to enhance the experience.

François Dumont

He followed Bach with a distinctive reading of the four Chopin Ballades, some of the most melodic and moving examples of the Chopin oeuvre. Dumont brought his own vision to the score with extended rubato, crystalline articulation, abrupt silences and the singing melodic lines that Chopin intended. 

As in the Bach, it was evident that Dumont practices a style often lacking in young performers: he listens intently to himself as he plays. He drew rich tones and subtle dynamics from the Yamaha grand piano and sang silently along throughout.

The four ballades reflected his attention to detail and the sometimes audacious liberties he chooses to take in order to make this music his own. As he explained to me later, he starts with a detailed study of a score to determine its full potential for individual interpretation. “I always try to make it different,” he explained. 

Dumont closed his recital with the Ravel Valse, ten minutes of shifting moods -- dark passages mixed with a recurring sweet melodic line. This was perhaps the most demanding piece of the evening for its control and virtuosity, building to one of the most dramatic climaxes in the repertoire. Dumont seemed to be an emotional wreck at the end and so were many in the audience.

A winner of multiple piano competitions, Dumont says he is finished with those trials and tribulations. “I have other things to do,” he told me. Already having produced an extensive CD library, he is currently launching a new collection of Liszt transcriptions of Wagner (recorded on Piano Classics). On tap for next year are recordings of Mozart concertos under Leonard Slatkin and multiple pieces he refers to as his “Bach project”.

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