Bezuidenhout Sparkles in Mozart Recital

CanadaCanada Mozart: Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Telus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre, Vancouver, 8.3.2015 (GN)

Photo: Sherry Wang
Photo: Sherry Wang

Sonata in E-flat major, K.282
Suite in C major, K. 399
Minuet in D major, K. 355
Gigue in G major, K. 574
Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Fantasy in C minor, K. 475
Sonata in A major, K. 331


If one looked back a decade or so, performing the integral Mozart sonatas on the fortepiano might have been regarded as quite credible but still something of an experiment. Now it’s an established industry. With fine traversals from Ronald Brautigam, then Andreas Staier, and now Kristian Bezuidenhout – all very distinguished and individual artists – I think we almost have an embarrassment of riches. Bezuidenhout has recently completed his recorded survey for Harmonia Mundi, and that is what we sampled here.

Critical to any fortepiano experience is the sound of the instrument and the venue in which it is placed. This was a five-octave fortepiano, made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf (Washington, DC) after Johann Schantz, c.1790, with knee-pedals and a ‘moderator’. Provided by School of Music, University of British Columbia, it exhibited a nice tonal palette as well as allowing considerable flexibility in dynamics. The venue was the Telus Studio Theatre, the mini concert hall inside the Chan Centre, a tall, narrow cylindrical shell with seating around the instrument in the middle and two tiers of balcony above. This had all the right intimacy – and the sound projected almost perfectly into the space.

What is impressive about Bezuidenhout’s approach is that he has really thought through these works in fortepiano terms, which is quite different from taking an existing interpretation on a concert grand and simply transferring it to the more intimate instrument. The artist is acutely aware of where the fortepiano can go and where it cannot, and of the range of textures, colours and articulations that can feasibly be sought. Naturally, things sound a little bit different – some phrases more angular, some interludes more self-effacing, others surprisingly brusque and powerful – but this pianist’s journey is held together by a sharp intellect and obvious sensitivity. One thing that stood out was Bezuidenhout’s sheer love for every note of this music and, in particular, its ingenuity.

The fluidity of the lines in the opening Adagio of the early Sonata in E-flat major was really something to marvel at, but the pianist knew exactly when to inject rougher edges later on. His sense of balance between deliberation and sparkling caprice was unerring throughout, and I doubt that I have heard a fresher performance. The more obscure Suite in C major has a tendency to prolixity, but he made the work add up to a ‘story’ of sorts, finding a movement and balance in its sometimes formal constructions and a lovely dreaminess in the Allemande in particular.

I could go on about the evenness of Bezuidenhout’s runs and the imagination of his phrasing, but one thing for sure is that his Rondo in A minor was exquisite. It found a sense of reverie and fantasy that was disarming, the natural flow and feeling of the playing setting the seal on a lovely emotional journey.

I was almost as impressed by the performance of the more popular works after the intermission.  The Fantasy was in some ways more varied in expression than usual, but it sometimes struck me as too deliberate. The famous K. 331 gave me plenty to think about. There was elegance and shape aplenty in the opening Tema con Variazione, hinting at a harpsichord-like timbre and articulation at points. The pianist then turned to quiet intimacy before the Alla Turca buoyantly propelled the work home. A lot of the brusque bottom of the instrument was in evidence here, combined with a stunning array of sharp rhythmic and textural contrasts and a concealed charm in the many right hand runs.

The only thing that I was slightly uncomfortable about in this delightful recital was the use of the ‘moderator’, which allows all or part of a section of a work to be played with a different registration. I especially noted this in K. 331. I remember when celebrated harpsichordists like George Malcolm got such pleasure from varying registrations on the Goff harpsichord, but now it looks questionable and dated. I’m not sure that I warm to it on the fortepiano either. The real question is one of authenticity: was it common practice for performers around 1800 to use this functionally-designed feature of their instrument as a critical input into interpretation?

© Geoffrey Newman 2015

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