Kristian Bezuidenhout: A Revelatory Recital at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Kerll, L. Couperin, Froberger, Handel and J. S. Bach: Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord), Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 12.2.2013 (SSM)

Johann Kaspar Kerll: Toccata in G Minor
Passacaglia in D Minor
Louis Couperin: Allemande, Courante and Sarabande for Harpsichord in E Minor
Johann Jacob Froberger: Toccata No.16 in C Major, FbWV 116
Partita No. 12 in C Major, FbWV 612a
George Frideric Handel: Allemande from Suite No. 3 in D Minor, HWV 428
Courante from Suite No. 4 in D Minor HWV 437
Aria and Variations from Suite No. 3 in D Minor, HWV 428
Johann Sebastian Bach: Tocatta in D Minor, BWV 913
Partita in A Minor (after Solo Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, transcription for harpsichord by Lars Ulrik Mortensen)

Although I could satisfy my thirst for music by listening solely to the harpsichord, I see why others cannot. At times pulling back from the music itself and just hearing the instrument’s grating, piercing sound makes me question my obsession with it. Wanda Landowska, the first modern musician to bring the harpsichord out of storage, played a Pleyel that was so immense sounding that when all registers and both manuals were used at the same time (which her instrument could do) a chord could be sustained for 25 seconds. The Pleyel certainly did correct some of the instrument’s legendary weaknesses, sustaining notes and allowing changes in volume (although not gradually). Even though this type of harpsichord, custom-made for her, disappeared, many musicians after her continued playing in an earth-shattering style. Fernando Valenti, a student of Ralph Kirkpatrick, the major advocate of a softer approach to the harpsichord, rebelled against him and used a Challis harpsichord that was a model of discord. Today Pierre Hantai plays the harpsichord as if Scarlatti had written Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

Bezuidenhout’s instrument here was a double manual 1994 French harpsichord by D. Jacques Way and Marc Ducornot that had a remarkable tone. Every note glowed. Bezuidenhout used the second manual and hand stops sparingly, but effectively enough to vary phrasing and articulation as needed. This was not the case in an earlier concert in Alice Tully Hall. Bezuidenhout’s instrument of choice then was a fortepiano whose sound barely reached past the first rows of the orchestra. His harpsichord here made one feel as if the acoustics for this auditorium were specifically designed to give the instrument ideal support.

A charming speaker, Bezuidenhout at one point addressed the audience and explained what the relationship was among the works he had chosen: all were related in one way or another to Froberger. He is credited with creating the Baroque suite as a series of dance movements, and his works were the progenitors of the suites of Handel and the suites and partitas for keyboard by Bach. At times, the music on the program reminded me of the recently rediscovered Christophe Graupner who composed over forty partitas, or Silvius Weiss’s voluminous output of suites for the lute. I am not aware of any connection between Froberger and these composers, but it would seem impossible that they were unaware of him.

The program included three toccatas, a form that gave a composer the opportunity to write down his own improvisations, music that would otherwise have been lost. Virtuoso passages, fughetti or fugues, and arpeggios are all the stuff of toccatas. Bezuidenhout dove into these toccatas and into all the pieces with verve and confidence, but the transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Partita for solo violin lost its grandeur and its inner line in the flood of rushing notes with a tempo that was too far from the norm for any chaconne. But Bezuidenhout excelled in the other works on the program. There was no showmanship here, but rather a clear desire to please the audience and make for an enjoyable evening. The selection of pieces from the underappreciated suites of Handel were pitch-perfect, receiving, as did all the da capo pieces, well-judged ornamentations. The encore was the Allemande from Bach’s Fourth Partita and could not have been more poignantly played.

This recital would turn even the most adamant skeptic of the harpsichord into an admirer. It would amaze me if anyone hearing the performance could complain about this sweet-sounding harpsichord or the exquisite playing by Bezuidenhout.

Stan Metzger