Harvard’s venerable Sanders Theater proved the ideal venue for a recital titled “The Genius of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart” by fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on Friday evening, February 25th. As Bezuidenhout explained in an informal and engaging pre-concert talk, the hall, although certainly larger than the salons of Viennese aristocratic palaces where Mozart often performed, has similarly tall and narrow proportions, its wood paneling adding just the right amount of resonance to enhance the tonal qualities of the five-octave Viennese fortepiano on which he chose to perform. We’ll have more to say about this fine instrument later on.
As Bezuidenhout took pains to point out, Mozart’s solo piano works, like Beethoven’s, were written for two distinct audiences, public and private, neither of them resembling the respectfully silent audiences of today. Sonatas were written for his pupils, usually talented noblewomen, who might have performed them at an after-dinner soirée, but not before a larger public. Carefully notated to reflect the composer’s intentions as precisely as possible in scores prepared for publication, they represent a continuous effort to expand the language of the classical three-movement sonata form. At his public subscription concerts, on the other hand, for which Mozart, a top virtuoso, acted as his own impresario, audiences were attracted both by his keyboard skill and his inventiveness in works with a strongly improvisatory component. Fantasies, more or less rhapsodic in structure, and variations on popular songs and opera arias were apt to be summarily notated or not written down at all. Friday’s program was designed to demonstrate Mozart’s genius at both types of composition, for public and for private consumption.
The evening began with the Sonata in F major, K.332, notable for its quicksilver changes of mood and character in the first movement. Bezuidenhout lovingly brought out every nuance, with beautifully voiced “horn calls” and parallel thirds, crisp offbeat accents, and judicious ornamentation in the repetition of the exposition. In the leisurely paced Adagio, ornaments seemed to grow naturally out of the melody, rendered in an astonishing variety of tone colors within a relatively small dynamic range. The Finale, by contrast, was full of capricious shifts from exuberant flights of fancy to mock-serious marching octaves, only to die away in an unexpected pianissimo.
Also in F major, the set of eight variations on “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding” (a wife is the most glorious thing) was composed in the spring of 1791 and was to be Mozart’s last composition for solo piano. The theme was taken from a Singspiel number by Benedikt Schack, a good friend of Mozart and creator of the role of Tamino in the Magic Flute. Bezuidenhout was every bit the match for Mozart’s virtuosic tour de force, the humdrum, four-square formal pattern of the theme continually broken by improvisatory excursions into brilliant passage work and chromatic ornamentation.
The Fantasia in C minor, K. 396, composed possibly in 1782, and originally for violin and piano, was left in fragmentary form; it was completed and arranged for solo piano after Mozart’s death by the Abbé Maximilian Stadler, musical adviser to his widow Constanze. Arpeggios and scales ripple up and down the full range of the keyboard, snatches of melodic themes emerging from thickets of passagework. With exquisite variations of touch and impeccable timing, Bezuidenhout brought out the dynamic and textural caprice of this written-out fantasy, offering us a window into a lost world of keyboard improvisation. The program concluded with the Sonata in B flat major, K. 333. In the opening movement, with its beautifully balanced periods, Bezuidenhout impressed us with his willingness to breathe between phrases much as a singer does, while maintaining a lively Allegro pace. The repeated exposition and its recapitulation brought, in lieu of more extrovert ornamentation, the subtlest of changes in the melodic line. After the Andante cantabile, with its beautifully voiced thirds in harmonic excursions, the Finale, a joyous rondo, was delivered with dramatic panache. For an encore, we heard the Andante cantabile from the Sonata in C major, K. 330.
The third hero of the evening was Rodney Regier, builder of the beautiful fortepiano that was loaned for the occasion from his workshop in Freeport, Maine. Patterned after instruments produced ca. 1785-1795 by the famous Viennese piano builder Anton Walter, the instrument has a brilliant, ringing treble register, crisp clear bass, and singing middle register, each with its own expressive potential. Its two pedals are actually knee levers; one controls the dampers, and the other, a “moderator,” pushes felt pads against the strings to produce a velvety, almost “ghostly” tone color that is particularly effective in soft and harmonically ambiguous passages. And since Mozart reveled in employing every single note at both ends of the keyboard, his music played on a five-octave instrument paradoxically never seems to be holding back or miniaturist, as it too often does when played on a large modern piano.
A specialist in the performance of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century keyboard music on period instruments, Bezuidenhout was born in South Africa, studied in Australia and the United States, and now lives in London. He returns to Boston this June to appear at the biannual Boston Early Music Festival.