Rarely, one would imagine, are the words “harpsichordist” and “emergency” uttered in the same sentence, but there was probably a lot of such talk going on last Friday for the organizers of the Boston Early Music Festival. Scheduled recitalist Kenneth Weiss cancelled unexpectedly, leaving last night’s Festival Concert at Jordan Hall vacant. Fortunately, accomplished early keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout stepped in, replete with the cool-headed confidence and flawless technical prowess one craves in such a crisis. Bezuidenhout’s French-inflected program of Louis Couperin, Froberger, Handel and Bach left few notes on the harpsichord untouched, but made time for introspection along the way.
The harpsichord of choice was a French double by D. Jacques Way, after Hemsch. Its gentle greens and golds and bucolic lid painting brought peace and relaxation to those audience members who, for instance, may have been surprised to find Storrow Drive closed 15 minutes before the concert began. The sound was warm and full, particularly in the tenor range, where each pluck had a pleasant lute-like twang. That richness suited the repertoire well, as Couperin and Froberger were heavily influenced by the French lutenists’ manner of rolling chords in a so-called “broken style.” In slow movements like Couperin’s Allemande and Sarabande, Bezuidenhout reflected this tradition with his languorous, resonant touch, allowing each “broken” chord to fade away naturally. By loosening the rhythm of the dance, he focused attention on the individual contours of the melodic line, with its many florid twists and turns.
The smooth, free-flowing Sarabande of Froberger received similar treatment, creating an exciting contrast with the fun, surprising, rhythmically rigid Courante. When repeating a section of a dance, Bezuidenhout typically refrained from elaborate ornamental variations, but instead would articulate some phrase in a spicier or more daring way. Froberger’s typically mystical harmonic mischief led to some temperament-bending chords in the Courante; as in the encore piece, Bach’s Allemande from the D Major partita, Bezuidenhout enjoyed torturing the audience, by relishing in a cluster of dissonant notes, or by saving a poignant resolution for the last possible second. It was musical sadism at its finest.
Though Jordan Hall responded beautifully to his smooth, indulgent approach in slow movements, there were moments when Bezuidenhout’s legato playing felt lacking for contrast. Particularly in slow movements, chords were generally rolled pre-beat and at much the same speed, rendering the bass line somewhat fuzzy and inarticulate. In faster movements, the rhythm was crystal clear, yet the phrasing could then lack variety, in its occasional inattention to space between cadences or to shaping the bass line. Overall, if some of the compelling freedom in the right hand had been transferred to the left, the feel of the dance could have come across more successfully.
The three Handel selections could similarly have benefited from more structure in the bass, although Bezuidenhout certainly channeled the dance in the Courante from the 11th Suite, which sounded much like the earliest known precursor to disco. Bezuidenhout’s technique shone in the Aria and Variations, where paired groupings of notes gave a nice lilt to the former, and astounding virtuosity enlivened the latter, which grew gradually more bravura and ridiculous as the evening continued. Bezuidenhout’s day job as virtuoso fortepianist was evident here; his usual legato approach allowed for some shocking contrasts when he would let loose and whack a particularly gargantuan chord.
The final work was Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin as transcribed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen; the work was quite effective on the harpsichord, and the bombastic, energetic arrangement had plenty for lovers of good and poor taste alike. The real highlight was the nigh-interminable monster of a chaconne that closes the work. Here, Bezuidenhout drew the most color out of the instrument, using every possible combination of keyboards, and employing the upper set of strings for long stretches. Whether he missed a note in the final movement is beyond this reviewer, as I stopped counting correct ones in the low ten thousands, and Bezuidenhout seemed quite content to let them fly by at incredible speeds. The wild ovation from the crowd confirmed that they were counting as well, though, and were equally impressed with the tally.
Bezuidenhout can certainly create a compelling sound world, and knows how to disrupt it in an instant for dramatic effect—a harmony change, a kink in the temperament, or a dissonant leap in the melody. His attention to melodic detail is superb, even if it occasionally comes at the expense of clarity in the bass. Called in at the last minute and still looking about as calm as could be, Bezuidenhout confirmed that he’s just the right harpsichordist in an emergency—or just in case one should ever need a compellingly musical keyboardist with rock-solid technique.