Bezuidenhout Reveals Little-Known Influences on Bach

United StatesUnited States Various:  Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord), Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 23.4.2015 (SSM)

Weckmann: Toccata in E Minor, No. 1
Purcell: Prelude from Suite in G Minor, Z. 661
Almand from Suite in G Minor, Z. 661
Rondeau Minuet from The Gordian Knot Unty’d, Z. 597
Round O from Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge, Z. 570
Ground in C Minor, Z. D221
Muffat: Passacaglia from Apparatus musico-organisticus
Couperin: Prelude in C Major
Ritter: Suite in C Minor
Couperin: Passacaille in C Major
Froberger: Tombeau in C Minor, FbWV 632
Bach: Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828


Kristian Bezuidenhout’s performances as soloist and as conductor have always reflected a refined, at times even fragile, sensibility, but one that is tempered by a firm intellectual rigor. This particular program, part of the “Before Bach” series currently running at Carnegie Hall, demonstrated the range of composers whose works were influential in creating Bach’s unique musical sensibility. As at previous concerts, Bezuidenhout gave a brief informal talk about the pieces to follow. Many might be aware of the impact that Buxtehude and Vivaldi had on Bach, but few would be familiar with the scores of several of the composers included here.

Most of the pieces flowed easily from one to the next, each one highlighting another aspect of Bach’s musical inheritance. Bezuidenhout opened with a piece by Mattias Weckmann, a competitor for musical positions with Froberger, who later became his friend. Weckmann most likely learned the toccata form from Froberger, who wrote two sets of them in the mid-17th century. The toccata is usually a showpiece with sudden fast runs, striking chords and arpeggios, but in Bezuidenhout’s hands it was more thoughtful than virtuosic, due perhaps to the thinness of its harmonic texture. The catchy, jumpy, fugue-like middle section leads to a final improvisatory closing.

The Prelude from the G-Minor Suite by Purcell seemed like a continuation of the toccata we had just heard. The “Round O” from Abdelazer will be familiar to many: it forms the basis of Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Purcell’s Ground in C Minor led to Muffat’s “Passacaglia.” What are a “Ground” and a “Passacaglia”? You might also throw in a “Chaconne,” rhythmically different but structurally the same. In fact, they are basically alike: all are built on a repeating motif in the bass that continues without change from the beginning to end.

Because of the bare notation in Louis Couperin’s Prelude, much freedom is given to the performer. There is so much freedom to improvise that it might be hard to believe when listening to different performers that they are playing the same piece. Bezuidenhout held to a dignified tempo and avoided heavy ornamentation which would have belied the work’s poignant  nature.

Very little keyboard music by Christian Ritter still exists, but if the little suite played here is representative, we’ve lost a lot. Bezuidenhout took the opening Allemande almost as slowly as the suite’s Sarabande, and to good effect. The work’s title, “On the departure of Charles XI, King of Sweden,” underscores the music’s mournfulness.

Froberger was a follower of the “stylus fantasticus,” a style of playing that emphasizes the freedom to improvise, as in the toccatas discussed above. The “stylus fantasticus” went even further in the direction of improvisation, allowing dissonance and the relegation of melodies. It can also be seen as the high point of Baroque style, which aimed to be ornate, elaborate, complex and intense.

The final work, Bach’s Partita No.4, is in the key of D major but has two movements, the Allemande and the Sarabande, that, as played here by Bezuidenhout, seemed to be in a minor key, a natural continuation of the earlier heartfelt works. I’m quite familiar with this Partita, having played it (not well) on an out-of-tune piano in the graduate-school lounge almost every day for a year. Bezuidenhout’s sterling performance made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time.

Stan Metzger

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