Maurice Ohana 12 Etudes d'interprétation pour piano


Maurice Ohana 
12 Etudes d'interprétation pour piano
Etudes Xl & Xll for piano and percussion

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Piano Yamaha CF lll
Florent Jodelet

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°238


"The work has to make itself. My own will must give way. I try to attract music towards me. I feel like a bird-catcher trying to capture living preys." Said Maurice Ohana. But this reminds us of Claude Debussy’s definition of  music : "a gathering of scattered forces", or of Gustav Mahler’s "One doesn’t compose, one is composed". Thus music is there all around us, virtually available, to be gathered and put into shape by the composer. A conception of course radically opposed to speculative and structuralistic thinking. And implying that music is made of sounds rather than of written notes. In fact, notation has been a major problem to Ohana, as it has been to other major composers of his generation concerned with composing sounds, such as Giacinto Scelsi or Luigi Nono in the later, revolutionary part of his creative evolution. For traditional notation is not well equipped to deal with such problems as their music implies, no more than for Flamenco or Jazz, two of Ohana’s important sources of inspiration. Scelsi resorted to traditional notation of a very complex kind, making it almost impossible to "follow" his music by reading the score. Ohana and Nono, on the other hand, wrote scores of a more schematic kind, giving us only that part of information which traditional notation can provide, putting the performer in front of very difficult tasks, including a good deal of intuitive re-creation. Limitations concern the organization of durations, of irrational, non-metric and non-pulsating rhythms, then all the properly physical aspects of sounds which only clumsy and imprecise verbal paraphrases can hope to convey, and, last but not least, pitches beyond the limits of the tempered scale.

For Ohana at a very early stage felt an irresistible attraction towards the infrachromatic world, due to the inborn refinement and sensitivity of his ear, of course, but above all to a very important part of his atavistic cultural heritage. An Andalusian of Jewish descent born in (then) French Marocco with a British passport, his father hailing from Gibraltar, he had an early French education and definitely settled down in Paris, becoming one of the major French composers of this century. His "classical" musical roots were Debussy above all, and beyond him Chopin, Scarlatti, Albeniz and de Falla. He felt very remote from the Germanic tradition, and it must be his English connection that made him adopt his beloved Purcell as being "from the South" in his imaginary poetic geography. All this accounts for his attachment to the tempered scale, for the sake of the inexhaustible riches of Western harmony. But he found micro-intervals, above all thirds of tone, in Flamenco singing, including its Arabic roots, black Africa and Afro-American Jazz being another fundamental source of his music, to which we should add the other two components (next to the Arabic one) of traditional Spanish culture : the (modal) Christian and the Jewish. Late in life, Cuba gave him a striking synthesis between the black and Spanish worlds, and a link was established between Cante Jondo and the Blues.

But it was certainly Flamenco that provided him with a model of coexistence between a non-tempered melos (the singer) and a harmonic system (the guitar). Traditional Western notation was inadequately equipped to fix such music on paper, hence the already mentioned notation problems. Significantly, his music, as well as Scelsi’s or Nono’s, are rejected by traditionally minded structuralistic analysts, as unable to fit into their mental schemes : Ohana never belonged and never shall belong to the "establishment". But Debussy had already warned us against the fetishism of the written sign : "Let us distrust writing, a mole’s work through which we end up reducing the living beauty of sounds to an operation through which two plus two painfully add up to four."

Another aspect that sets Ohana’s music apart from Western tradition is its basically monodic essence : "The groundwork of my music is monodic, be it in a succession of chords or in sounding masses; that which is added to it is but a wake or a projected shadow." Hence his preference for non-measured, non-metric rhythmical structures (that major difficulty for the performer), but also the paramount importance of harmony, not functional, but colouristic (another major affinity with Debussy). Ohana’s unique harmony is essentially that of the added note, the acciaccatura sounding the "foreign" and the "real" note of the chord simultaneously, and which is the essence of the rasgueado technique of the Flamenco guitar, where Scarlatti, Albeniz and the de Falla of the Fantasia betica found it. By thus "thickening" the chord, by "stuffing" its spaces, Ohana "freezes" the harmonic motion (again like Debussy) and tends towards the ideal of de-tempered micro-intervals. A "thick" chord in his music, like in the music of Varèse, should be considered as an enhanced unison, like the "thick" single brush stroke with a painter.

To explore the realm of micro-tonality, Ohana found ideal tools with the human voice and with percussion instruments, his privileged support for experimentation. The piano, on the other hand, was the prisoner of the tempered scale. Hence the fact that this splendid pianist, deeply in love with the instrument (he started his musical career as a brilliant concert pianist even before becoming a composer) wrote nothing for the instrument, except for two early and rather uncharacteristic works (Sonatine monodique and three Caprichos) until he was nearly sixty. In 1966, the fifth movement of the magnificent chamber piece Signes had been an important step in the right direction. At last, in 1972-73, he produced the masterly set of Twenty-four Preludes. Nearly another decade elapsed until, after having completed his lone but splendid Piano Concerto (1980-81), he launched the major project of a double series of Etudes. The planned forty Etudes d’initiation for beginners, which could have become his Mikrokosmos, were never completed, but the twelve great Etudes d’interprétation (whose every title indicates that musical problems prevail over mere keyboard technique, even though they are extremely difficult in performance), recorded here complete, add up to his greatest work for piano. The first set of six, written in 1981-82, was premiered by its dedicatee Paul Roberts at the Purcell Room of the London Royal Festival Hall the 8th April 1983. The second set of six was composed in 1984-85, alongside with the Opera La Célestine, and its two last pieces, adding the presence of a percussionist, were premiered separately by the dedicatees Jay and Gordon Gottlieb at the Paris Salle Gaveau the 8th January 1985. At that time, the set was still unfinished, Etudes 9 and 10 not being completed until October, the first performance of the whole set (this time with Vincent Bauer as a percussionist) taking place a few weeks later.

The presence of percussion in the last two Etudes is nothing but a natural extension of Ohana’s tendency to "de-temperate" the piano, through astonishingly refined acoustic deception and "cheating" denotating an exceptionally subtle inner hearing. This is music meant to sound, the written sign being but its humble (and not always fully adequate) servant. That which Paul Roberts writes about Debussy applies to Ohana at an even higher degree : "the instrument does not undergo the music, but on the contrary it is its source; it endlessly explores and discovers new riches at the level of resonance, texture and timbre (...). In Debussy’s music the sensorial and sensuous apprehension of sound has become an end in itself." Indeed, as has been stressed before, the music of Ohana often looks unpromising and scanty on paper, but wait for the explosion of its dazzling riches under the fingers of the inspired performer, whose re-creative imagination is absolutely essential! From what has been said so far, it is obvious that text-book analysis won’t do in the present case. Before giving some useful indications about each piece, let us once again quote the composer :

"One too often puts language before the actual thing to be said, whereas it should proceed from the work’s vision." - "My music is complex, but not complicated. Once they get beyond a certain threshold, my performers find it easy." - "It is important that the essential fabric of my music should be singable. It must be accessible to a human being under the most simple form allowing him to apprehend it."

Since the mere reading of the score cannot hope to convey a complete picture of the music, it is essential that it should be transmitted to posterity through recordings made by performers who worked under the composer’s own supervision. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet belongs to those privileged happy few.

Book one

I. Cadences libres

The subject of the opening piece of the collection is a basic element in Ohana’s musical thinking, his emancipation from the fetters or metric rhythm and the bar-line. And it also shows a formal principle often to be found : the contrasting second half of the piece integrates elements from the first in order to achieve a final synthesis. An opening section with many trills, living up to the title, is followed by an imbrication of two short elements (Ohana calls them "neumes") freely repeated by the two hands without ensemble, so that the attacks of the slow harmonized melody in the upper stave should interrupt their texture as little as possible. This free repetition of small structures is another typical feature of Ohana’s writing. Now comes a slow and flexible monody harmonized in cluster-like chords of six sounds, interrupted by reminiscences from the opening cadenzas. As so often with this composer, the ending is strident and forceful.

II. Mouvements parallèles

A sublime melodic line, long and slow, is played by both hands at a distance of five octaves, actually in minor ninths. But here an extraordinary "deception" occurs : given the very wide range, the ear perceives them as "false", de-tempered octaves, the bass really being "like a shadow of the upper line", to quote the composer himself. A brief cadenza leads to the actual first main part, a kind of quick toccata in semiquavers slightly reminiscent of Messiaen, still in minor ninths, but only two octaves apart, and thus perceived as such. A brief slower interlude precedes the second main part (integrating elements from the first), featuring iambic rhythms, resulting in more jerky and violent accents. This corresponds to the drawing with which Ohana adorned the original manuscript (what pity the drawings were not reproduced in the printed score!), that of a tropical forest with drummers and dancers.

III. Agrégats sonores

This shortest (a single page of music) and most mysterious of the Etudes is also a supreme quintessence of Andalusia in music, a remote and dream-like reminiscence of the Saeta, the monodic song extemporized in the streets of Andalusia (especially Sevilla) during the Holy Week. The chordal structures mentioned in the title, of aching beauty with their predominance of seconds, are actually there to glorify the melodic line, and this is not surprising with this composer. The piece’s perfection, its nudity, are worthy of Debussy’s Canope.

IV. Main gauche seule

This piece is inscribed in memoriam Maurice Ravel, 12.12.1981, and is of course a homage to his Concerto for the left hand, whose dark, panic atmosphere is not only evoked in the music, but also in the accompanying drawing of a storm-stricken landscape with tiny human beings and horses fleeing in all directions. Again, the essence of the piece is monodic. A slow and very dark introduction in the instrument’s lowest range leads to a kind of perpetuum mobile briefly interrupted by a few free cadenzas. A short quieter and softer interlude instructs the player to reproduce the colour of an African balafon. The piece’s second half (again interspersed with reminiscences from the first) brings more freedom and more variety, with some harmony and jerky, discontinuous phrases.

V. Quintes

Four of the Etudes take an interval as their subject-matter, and Ohana has chosen on purpose those intervals which Debussy did not use in his own Etudes. This is not a study of pianistic technique concerning fifths, but an exploration of that interval’s pure resources of colour and timbre. It was perhaps the most difficult of all to fix on paper, and remains the one putting the performer in front of the greatest challenge. Again there is an accompanying drawing, of a couple of centaurs on a moon-lit riverside, their silhouettes and the stars being mirrored in the water. The music is just as subtle and elusive, dispensing with the contrast of various sections in order solely to concentrate on that intimate search for the sonido negro, the "black sound" of Flamenco, about which Ohana speaks as of "that magic shut inside the sound, which shatters us when it shows itself, and that no one is able to define."

VI. Troisième Pédale

This most extended piece of the first Set of Etudes entirely relies upon the wealth of resonances liberated by the combined use of the permanently blocked third pedal of the instrument and of the alternative use of four felt-covered rulers blocking part of the keyboard (white keys and black keys, upper and lower half of the keyboard). I can sense in it some traces of sublimated Blues. It begins in the strident upper range, then dry and irregularly spaced chords unleash the aforementioned resonances. Sometimes they are freed by very fast runs "whipped" downwards, at other times they blossom in quiet and wealthy fulness. And the piece ends above a jerky ostinato in the lowest range, a true emanation of blackest Africa. This is perhaps the most brilliant and readily accessible piece of the lot.

Book two

VII. Septièmes

Inscribed in memoriam Béla Bartók, this, lasting a full seven minutes, is one of the most extended of the Etudes. The purely diatonic opening monody is harmonized in minor sevenths, but later on major ones occur as well, both being gradually "stuffed" with dense chords and sometimes notated as diminished octaves, a further proof of their "non-tempered" essence. Again, Ohana asks his performer to "colour" the sound, so as to conjure a marimba ("light, incisive") or, in the lowest register, an undefined "percussion". The piece contains some mischievous verbal allusions (in English), such as "Cat on the keyboard" (a very recognizable allusion to the subject of Scarlatti’s celebrated Cat’s Fugue), "Fireworks" (just glimpse of Debussy’s last Prelude) or "Deep night" (slow and mysterious chords of two interlocked sevenths).

VIII. Secondes

This, of course, is Ohana’s privileged interval, and, true to his basically anti-chromatic musical thinking, it is mostly major. A short and forceful opening gesture leads to the first main section, a moderately-paced, but measured melody on both hands with changing time-signatures (mainly 6/8). A short transition towards runs of chordal semiquavers, then the melody alternates between one hand and the other against long-held chords, until it is resumed in its original guise. A "dark and tumultuous" second main section, with stormy and rumbling runs of quintuplets in the lowest range under syncopated long-held seconds unfolding as a melody of the right hand gradually regains the brilliant upper register, reached in time for the free cadenza-like conclusion, with its virulent "furious" tremolos and its long resounding final high chord.

IX. Contrepoints libres

This, alongside with Nr. 10, was the last Etude to be completed, perhaps because it was the highest challenge of all. It remains just that for the performer, who has to cope with four superimposed staves of non-coordinated and bar-less melodic lines, immediately following the very slow and "remote" introduction of ten-note clusters in the mistiest low range (totally de-tempered for the listener). A slightly livelier section in two and three parts, measured but still independent from each other build up a progression towards another four-part counterpoint (the word "polyphony" is wildly inadequate here!), the second "voice" being a protracted trill. The next section is in three parts again, but varied, superimposing clusters in fast runs, slow clusters and very deep basses. The piece unexpectedly ends on a slow and brooding conclusion, strangely final in its solemnity.

X. Neuvièmes

Here the brief opening is "Vehement, fairly free", superimposing pairs of major ninths (with doubled octaves). A violent and strictly measured Allegro follows (a rare feature indeed!), then we have a harmonized melody in long-held notes for the right hand, the left providing sharp iambic rhythms in the lowest range. A glissando leads over to a kind of lively Toccata marked Eclatant, gradually slowing down in clusters, and after another short "free" episode, the piece ends with the continuation of the opening Allegro, broadening into the forceful conclusion.

XI. Sons confondus

The last two Etudes (actually completed long before Nrs.9 and 10) call for the presence of a percussionist. Both are elaborate, extended concert pieces, the one considered here lasting a full eleven minutes. The percussion instruments mainly include "metals" :  3 suspended cymbals, 3 Chinese gongs, 2 tam-tams (medium and large), a bell-tree, a set of crotales, 3 temple bells, 3 Chinese cymbals, 5 cow bells, but also a vibraphone, a tambourine and an (optional) cithar (dulcimer) tuned in thirds of tone. The piece explores the effects of resonances between pitched (vibraphone, dulcimer) or unpitched (cymbals, gongs) percussions and the piano. Ohana takes advantage of the very broad and little-defined spectrum (up to "white noise") of vibrant metals by projecting into them the complex, but defined harmonic resonances of the tempered piano. Through this phenomenon of absorption, the metals thus prolong the harmonic resonances of the piano by de-tempering them, whereas in Ohana’s own beautiful Silenciaire of 1969, on the contrary, the twelve stringed instruments acted as a body of resonance to the non-tempered and inharmonic spectra of the percussion, thus also de-tempering the harmonic space. Special sound effects are largely used, such as striking the piano’s strings with drum-sticks, mixing glissandi of vibraphone and piano or integrating the sound of the dulcimer into the resonance of the piano. This and the next Etude belong to Ohana’s most original and richest inspirations.

XII. Imitations-Dialogues

Here skinned percussions predominate (side-drum, tambourine, 2 bongoes, 3 toms, 2 tumbas, a contrabass tom), but a variety of other percussions also appear : 4 wood-blocks, 2 temple-blocks, 2 tam-tams (medium and low), 2 lying cymbals, a bell-tree, claves and a pair of maracas. With diabolical skill, Ohana takes advantage of the effect of mimetism and acoustic deceit caused by the approximate nature of our aural memory, so as to make us forget at times that the piano is an instrument with tempered pitch, whereas at least some of the skinned percussions are not. The intimate osmose first explored by Bartók in his celebrated Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion is here developed into its most secret recesses with unsurpassed refinement. Even more than in Etude Nr.11, which to be true pursued quite different issues, Piano and Percussion are treated like a single entity adding up all their separate possibilities. This is the reason why the genuine place of these two pieces is indeed within a collection of Piano Etudes.

Text after Harry Halbreich original

Florent Jodelet


Born in 1962, Florent Jodelet studied percussion with Michel Cals then with Jacques Delecluse at the Paris Conservatoire, where he obtained a First Prize in 1983. He completed his training with Jean-Pierre Drouet, also receiving tuition from Iannis Xenakis at the University of Paris and from Michel Zbar (in electroacoustic music). His taste for creation has led him to collaborate intensively with contemporary composers, and his concert career has enabled him to play numerous works: concertos for percussion and orchestra; solo pieces and chamber music, both in France and abroad.

In addition, he has built up a discography of the contemporary percussion repertoire with discs devoted to Philippe Fenelon, Michael Jarrell, Maurice Ohana, Kaija Saariaho and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Since 1988, Florent Jodelet has been soloist with the Orchestre National de France and since 1998, assistant-professor at the Paris Conservatoire.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet


Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was born in 1962. He studied piano at the Metz (France) Conservatory, also taking courses in oboe, percussion, and composition for electronic instruments. He went on to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, where he studied under Pierre Sancan and was awarded a number of first prizes. There he attended courses by Jean Hubeau , and Master Classes led by Paul Badura-Skoda, Nikita Magaloff, Menahem Pressler, and others. In 1986 he won first prize at the Köln International Beethoven-Tomassoni Competition and the New York Young Concert Artists Auditions. His early professional performances won unusual acclaim from American critics. In 1989 Bavouzet won the Chamber Music Prize at the International Van Cliburn Competition. In 1992, he won the Esther Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary (Canada).

Recent concert tours to North America have provided opportunities to maintain his dialogue with Alexander Edelman in New York. Bavouzet's musical tastes are wide-ranging, with special emphasis on contemporary music, jazz, and jazz-rock (some of his favourite musicians include Chick Corea, John Mc Laughlin, and Bill Evans).

A number of contacts were especially significant in Bavouzet's musical life. His 1989 interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen was a great experience, and his friendship with Maurice Ohana played an important role in his development.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performs regularly in France and at a number of music festivals (Festival Estival de Paris, Les Jacobins International Piano Festival at Toulouse, Festival de La Roque d'Anthéron, etc...) and also in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia. Notable among the many conductors he has performed with are Marek Janowski, Armin Jordan, Ken Ichiro Kobayashi, Emmanuel Krivine, Kent Nagano and Michel Plasson.

Music and recording critics have acclaimed the high quality of Bavouzet's Joseph Haydn, Sonatas & Fantasia : "... his inflexible dynamics, perfect phrasing, and shared musical enjoyment with the listener are masterly" (quoted from a review by Sophie Roughol).

"... Through his exacting, supple, carefully constructed and powerfully logical playing, Bavouzet takes unerring aim and never misses the mark" (quoted from a review by Patrick Szersnovicz).

For the daily paper "Le Monde" his record Robert Schumann, Grande Sonate opus 14, Kinderszenen & Kreisleriana is selected among "the best of 1994" : "To play Schumann, to organize, without showing it, the flood of his music, you need a pianist with mind and heart : that is Bavouzet. The three antinomic works are played with astounding correctness..." (quoted from a review by Alain Lompech).

piano Yamaha CF III



Livre I
dédié à Paul Roberts

Cadences libres
Mouvements parallèles
Agrégats sonores
Main gauche seule in memoriam Maurice Ravel
Troisième pédale

Livre II
dédié à Jay Gottlieb

Septièmes in memoriam Béla Bartók
Contrepoints libres
Sons confondus


This is an important release in the posthumous discography of Maurice Ohana (1914-92). Shortly before his death I heard these studies in a memorable recital at St John's, Smith Square, given by Paul Roberts, dedicatee of the first book. For his pre-concert talk Ohana sat on the edge of the stage to talk and reminisce informally with the half dozen people who turned up. Genial and friendly, he showed no concern that he is so neglected in the country whose passport he holds.
Cosmoplitan in the extreme, Ohana was an Andalusian of Jewish descent born in Morocco, educated in French and eventually established in Paris as a major French composer of the last century. Debussy influenced him above all 'classical' composers, also Chopin, Scarlatti, Albeniz & de Falla. Flamenco and Afro-American jazz contributed to his interest in micro-intervals, and many of his scores are schematic, leaving performers freedom for intuitive recreation...

These Études are his greatest work for solo piano. The last two are elaborate duos with percussion, untuned metals 'detempering' the resonances of the piano, which are crucial throughout these expressive pieces, which deal primarily with musical, not technical, problems. Paul Roberts, author of an important book on Debussy's piano music, premiered the first six at South Bank Centre, London, in 1983 & the others were completed in 1985.
There are comprehensive notes by Harry Halbreich, leading authority and champion of Ohana's music, from which I will draw upon a few passages. The first piece displays Ohana's 'emancipation from the fetters of metric rhythm and the bar-line'. The second has 'a sublime melodic line, played in parallel minor ninths, five octaves apart. The third is reminiscent of the Andalusian Saeta and the fourth, for the left hand, a homage to Ravel. No.5 is Quintes - four of Ohana's studies are based upon intervals, those which Debussy did not use in his own Études. The sixth explores the mysteries and enchantments produced with the Third Pedal. No.9 has 'four superimposed staves of non-coordinated and bar-less melodic lines'! The final duo, with skinned percussions predominating, deceives us into forgetting that the piano is an instrument with tempered pitch.
The playing by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet sounds as sensitive as this music requires and seems completely authoritative; the booklet carries an accolade about him by the composer. The recording in the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, Maine-et-Loire, 'achieved with the aid of an artificial head', is of demonstration quality, and the visual presentation, of all the information you could possibly want, is equally remarkable. - Peter Grahame Woolf

"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°238 :

 ... En 1996, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet enregistrait l'ensemble des 12 Etudes d'interprétation, avec le concours de Florent Jodelet pour les deux dernières ("Sons confondus", "Imitations-Dialogues"). La publication du CD, se signale d'abord par sa présentation d'un goût raffiné qui eût enchanté Ohana, dont on savait l'intérêt pour l'art graphique, ainsi que par la richesse du commentaire. Harry Halbreich nous apprend en effet tout ce qu'il faut savoir sur ces Etudes composées entre 1981 et 1986. Le dessein didactique qui est par essence celui des Etudes s'accomplit en art poétique, dans la lignée de celles de Chopin et de Debussy. Il s'agit, en misant sur des intervalles (secondes, quintes, septièmes, neuvièmes), sur une conduite particulière (cadences libres, mouvements parallèles), sur l'emploi de la main gauche seule, sur l'usage de la troisième pédale, d'interroger le piano et de faire naître des réponses qui sont autant de découvertes sur le plan de la couleur, de la texture, de la résonance. Les deux Etudes où la percussion est associée au piano sont traitées, remarque Harry Halbreich, "comme une entité unique" additionnant toutes les ressources dont disposent les deux partenaires et jouant sur un effet "de mimétisme et de trompe-l'oreille". Les Etudes d'interprétation ne cherchent pas à développer une virtuosité mécanique mais à enrichir la palette sonore du pianiste, à affiner son écoute, à stimuler son imagination.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet et Florent Jodelet sont entrés dans le jeu avec une remarquable intelligence de la poétique du compositeur. En 1987, Maurice Ohana avait loué les qualités du pianiste en reconnaissant "ce don de la couleur. des plans et des timbres différenciés, d'une sensibilité auriculaire qui donnent à Ravel ou Debussy la même densité musicale qu'à Beethoven, avec néanmoins une essence sonore différente". Que dire de plus? Le jeu de Bavouzet répond exactement au propos du compositeur, et il est magnifiquement servi par la prise de son. - Jean Roy
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