in: Reviews

March 24, 2009

Bezuidenhout/Müllejans Duo Dazzles Cambridge

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The phenomenon that is South African, fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, astonished Cambridge concertgoers on Saturday, March 21, in a flawless recital of Mozart, partnered with violinist Petra Müllejans at Harvard’s Paine Hall.  The valuable support of the Boston Early Music Festival enabled the return of this gifted artist, who in earlier Boston performances with BEMF and the Handel and Haydn Society had set the fortepiano bar at its uppermost position in listeners’ ears and minds.  The result was an almost sold-out house of rapt listeners, whose silence throughout the recital was clear indication of their involvement with Bezuidenhout’s  – and Mozart’s – remarkable creativity.

Sharing musical honors was the equally gifted Petra Müllejans, whose career is closely followed throughout Europe by violin aficionados.  The program note told us that Ms. Müllejans is as adept in Klezmer, Tango, and Czardas music as with Baroque and Classical period composers.  It would be fun to hear her essay this colorful repertoire, certainly, but what she and her fortepiano conspirator demonstrated in their Mozart performances was equally stimulating and emotionally far-reaching.

That Mozart’s Salzburgian precociousness in 1781 can still rivet a Cantabrigian audience 228 years later may seem unremarkable to regular concertgoers, but in the hands of Bezuidenhout and Müllejans, all of the excitement and frisson of the premières of these Mozart masterworks were recreated in real time on the Paine Hall stage.  The two performers were hand-in-glove throughout the evening, their unity of purpose fully serving the emotional gamut which Mozart’s music offered up.

One of the interests in this recital was observing how the prominence of the violin’s musical share flowered as Mozart grew in sophistication and facility in his violin/piano sonatas. The boundless high spirits of the Sonata in C, K. 296 began the evening, with its musical challenges mostly skewed in the keyboard direction.  Repeats were nicely ornamented, wonderful give-and-take observed, and one was amazed by Bezuidenhout’s mastery of the pp-ppp end of the dynamic spectrum.  The softest, most feathery touch was always flawlessly achieved.  Another felicity, so easy to hear and so difficult to perform, was the never overdone, elegant rubato these two artists brought to their playing. In this opening work, there was even the opportunity for Ms. Müllejans to reach over to Bezuidenhout’s music and turn the page for him.  She would be much busier as the evening progressed.

The deeper Sonata in G, K. 379 followed, begun with a piano-only introduction quasi fantasia fashion, reminding one of the improvisational prowess Mozart was known to display.  Indeed, the “distance” from the earlier sonata was quite wide, this sounding almost Beethoven-like in its reach of contrast and emotion. A molto agitato suddenly interrupted this pensive introduction, further enhancing the drama, and Bezuidenhout’s rapid passagework glittered and thrilled.  The second movement was theme and variation form, each variation offering a different color and mood, with one variation delightfully embellished with violin pizzicati.

This work is wonderingly known as “the one-hour sonata,” as a contemporary letter from the composer to his father reveals: “…I composed it between 11 and 12 o’clock last night – but in order to get it done in time I wrote out only the violin part…and kept my own part in my head…”*

After intermission, Bezuidenhout and Müllejans returned with the charming Six Variations in g on “Au bord d’une fontaine,” K. 360.  The highlight of the evening was to follow, the magisterial Sonata in B-flat, K. 454.

This sonata brought all in attendance into another world, the world of the fully mature Mozart at the height of his creativity.  One immediately noticed the more exalted contrasts of emotion, the remarkable facility of key structure, the more virtuosic demands asked of the players, the overall greater high-mindedness. From its portentous beginning, a real musical drama began to unfold, almost operatic in its complexities, and one noticed immediately that the violin had achieved equal partnership with the keyboard in prominence and expressivity.  Müllejans displayed vibrato as an expressive device, quite appropriate in this later work, and to great effect.  Frequent minor/major modal shifts, rapid passagework and a broader color palette elevate this sonata, and both players rose to every opportunity the music offered.  The Andante movement was as deep and rich a journey as Mozart offers, the extraordinary modulations at its center a reminder of this composer’s almost super-human gifts.

A brilliant Allegretto ended this most remarkable creation and was to end the evening, though the appreciative and cheering audience demanded and was offered an encore:  the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s op. 24 “Spring” Sonata, an appropriate choice, as this recital was given on 2009’s first day of Spring.  The same gifts of profundity of expression and deeply rewarding music-making were brought to this masterwork as well, capping with quiet nobility an evening of grace, virtuosity, and elegance one always hopes to encounter, and this night, was gratefully achieved.

Mozart’s Letters – Mozart’s Life, Robert Spaethling (ed.  and trans.), London:  Faber & Faber, 2000

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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