Bezuidenhout and Juilliard415 Perform Music that Never Shouts

United StatesUnited States J. C. Bach, W. F. Bach, Mozart: Kristian Bezuidenhout, Director and Fortepiano, Juilliard415, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 30.10.2014 (SSM)

After Johann Schantz (c. 1800
After Johann Schantz (c. 1800)

J. C. Bach: Sinfonia in G major, Op. 3, No. 6
W. F. Bach: Sinfonia in D minor, F.65
Mozart: Piano Concerto in F major, K.413/387a
Rondo in A minor, K.511
Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K.271 (“Jenamy”)

Kristian Bezuidenhout is not known to me as a conductor or, more accurately, a “director” as stated in the program notes. In an interview with a Baroque violinist a while back, I casually conflated “conductor” with “director” and “leader,” only to be told in no uncertain terms that conductor is a very different position, one that requires years of training and practice. She felt her role was more that of a first violinist or concertmaster in a chamber ensemble assuring that all the players start on the right beat. Given the fact that Bezuidenhout was the soloist in two piano concerti and was required to provide continuo for the other two, there was very little “conducting” that he could really do here. The playing by the Juilliard415 members has blossomed over the last few years and can now match any other “headless” orchestra measure for measure.

The program opened with the weakest piece of the evening, a sinfonia by Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian. Italy was the country to go to if you had any interest in the newest musical styles, and he was the only Bach to be exposed directly to the popular Italian style, an elegant and galante musical language. Most of his music is pleasant enough but has little substance. Perhaps it was nervousness (for the director as well as the students) that made the playing of this sinfonia seem a bit muddled. If it was meant to be a warm-up, then it did its job. From here on, the playing was top-notch, enthusiastic and professional on all levels.

The opening two works share a name but little else. As with many terms in music, one has to intuit what the composer meant when he entitled a piece “sinfonia.” J. S. Bach used it to describe the overture-like instrumental opening to many of his cantatas, but Italian composers of the period used sinfonia in its defined sense as simply a congregation of players.

The Adagio opening of W. F. Bach’s Sinfonia is almost pastoral in timbre with the Baroque flutes giving it much of its color. This bucolic music though is dampened by the key of D minor which darkens the music, creating a sense of foreboding. The listener expects something dramatic to come. The sudden switch from the Adagio to the Fugue was meant to surprise, and it did. The orchestra adeptly handled the complex fugue (modeled so clearly after W. F.’s father’s fugues for organ) and, particularly in the stretti, kept the inner voices clearly discernable.  

Attention shifted to the soloist in the two Mozart piano concerti. The fortepiano on stage was modeled after one by the Viennese keyboard maker Johann Schantz from c. 1800 that was admired by Haydn for its delicacy and light touch. The heart of what makes performers and listeners so passionate about historically informed performances was clearly demonstrated in the playing of these concerti. The music is put back in the context of where it belongs. It is the equivalent of being in Mozart’s home where you might say,” So this is how he lived,” Here one could say, “So this is what he heard.”

It was a joy to watch Bezuidenhout’s fingers flying over the keyboard. I specifically use the word “over” because it seemed like he wasn’t even touching the keys. I can only think of two very different performers with a similar lightness of touch: Miklos Spanyi playing the clavichord, a soft-sounding instrument but closer in mechanism to the fortepiano; and Marc-André Hamelin,whose light touch allows him to play the most difficult music at incredible speeds. Bezuidenhout’s technique, along with the orchestra’s sensitive accompaniment, created a completely different sound-world from more traditional performances of Mozart concerti: one that is warmer, less edgy or strident. The original instruments never overpowered the soloist. Fortes were loud but never LOUD.

The most moving music of the evening was the immaculately played Rondo in A minor that opened the second half of the program, a work both poignant and infinitely sad. This could also be said about the second movement Andantino of the Piano Concerto, K. 271, music that is mature well beyond Mozart’s 21 years.

This was an exemplary concert in all respects. Congratulations to Mr. Bezuidenhout who, one hopes, will return on a regular basis as guest artist and mentor.

Stan Metzger

Leave a Comment