United Kingdom C.P.E. Bach and Mozart: Kristian Bezuidenhout (conductor/harpsichord/piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 1.11.2018. (SRT)
C.P.E. Bach – Symphony No.2 in E-flat
Mozart – Symphony No.29 in A, K201; Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491; Rondo in A major, K386
I’ve grumped in these pages often enough about my problems with the fortepiano, and how I can’t reconcile myself to it, even when it’s played by someone as skilful and musical as Kristian Bezuidenhout. Not even I could complain tonight, though, because, for the first time in my experience, he was playing on a modern Steinway, albeit with the lid kept closed, presumably to tweak the balance with the orchestra. If he was playing on an unexpected instrument then so, too, were the musicians of the SCO, who were playing on gut strings. It’s something they’ve done before, but it’s still very unusual for them: normally they play in a historically informed manner but on modern instruments
Nevertheless, putting these two things together produced a lovely spot of music-making, and it really suited the great drama of Mozart’s C minor piano concerto. The strings sounded silky and threatening in the sinuous introduction, and the opening movement throughout was structured with clipped phrases and dark colours that perfectly suited the music’s tension. That was also true of the finale, except where the choir of winds provided delightful major key contrast. The piano played a different role in the two movements, though: in the finale Bezuidenhout led the drama, even through the trumpet-and-timpani climaxes, but in the first movement the piano was often the calm or reflective partner, turning the mighty first movement into more of a conversation than it often becomes. Then the piano took on a beautiful cantabile quality in the slow movement, even when things took a plunge into minor key darkness. This was a performance of grandeur and power, as fine as you could hope to hear.
Every bit as fine, though, was their sparkling performance of Mozart’s youthful A major symphony, a familiar work which here managed to sound newly minted. It’s difficult to go wrong with this evergreen masterpiece, and it’s bread-and-butter to this orchestra in particular, but it sounded as fresh as a Spring morning here, with a first movement that bristled with energetic strings, oboes and horns shining through the texture cleanly. There was a strong sense of legato, too, particularly in the transition at the end of the exposition, but it brought variety rather than incongruity, and there was a refreshing buzz about the whole first movement. The mutes really made a difference in the Andante, giving the whole movement the feel of a saintly processional, and Bezuidenhout achieved a lovely chamber effect by having the main melody of the third movement’s Trio played by the solo leader rather than the whole violin section; not something I’d heard before but very effective nonetheless. The finale had as much bite as the first movement, with Bezuidenhout gently tinkling in the harpsichord to add variety, and a grand set of fanfares brought us over the finish line.
It was a good idea to begin the evening with C.P.E. Bach’s E-flat string symphony which, if anything, had even more pizzazz to it. I loved the attention to detail in touches like the snatched dotted notes in the strings’ first subject, however, or the liquid wind solos that balanced the texture. On the other hand, though, it was a mistake to end the concert with the A major Rondo which, coming after the concerto, felt like unnecessary filler. Worse: it dispelled the memory of the concerto’s power and sent us out into the street with an impression of something that’s attractive but, by comparison, disposable.