Kristian Bezuidenhout doesn’t believe in holding back when he plays Mozart. As he tells it in an interview for Harmonia Mundi reproduced on the Boston Early Music Festival website, “the frustration with playing Mozart . . . on the modern piano . . . is that there’s this constant battle between the instrument that we have at our disposal and the music in question. And so as a young pianist you grow up playing these pieces and everyone yells at you all the time about playing mezzo piano, and gracefully, and grazioso, and not too heavy here, and don’t bang too hard . . . . When I discovered the fortepiano, I could suddenly play in an unbelievably visceral and dramatic style . . . and recapture this sense of Sturm und Drang and tempestuousness that I’m sure is present in Mozart’s music.” For Bezuidenhout, the key to Mozart’s rhetorical landscape is “the kind of naturally mercurial timing that we see in any good performance of opera.” To those who find his Mozart “too romantic,” he counters: “What is ‘romance’ for one person is an enlivened and rhetorically varied performance for another. . . .”
Bezuidenhout’s recital at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday for the Boston Early Music Festival series, gave ample demonstration of just what the pianist meant by “enlivened and rhetorically varied” performance. We can begin with the instrument itself, R. J. Regier’s exquisite five-octave fortepiano, patterned after Viennese instruments ca. 1785-1795. While the modern grand piano provides great sustaining power and continuity of tone color throughout its range, the fortepiano’s registers are differentiated and attacks are crisper. Taking advantage of these properties, Bezuidenhout elicited stentorian octaves in the bass that never sounded muddy or rumbling, ethereal flute tones in the treble, pianissimo, and a warmly singing quality in the middle range. There was no question of “holding back.”
The program included some of Mozart’s most rhetorically free-ranging works for solo piano alongside two pieces by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second son. Mozart was introduced to the music of both Bachs by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Hapsburg ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia in the 1770s, where the younger Bach had served as court harpsichordist. Mozart was apparently captivated by the rhetorical freedom and unabashed expressiveness of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s keyboard works. In the Rondo in C minor (Wq 59/4), from the fifth collection of sonatas, rondos, and free fantasias “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for Connoisseurs and Amateurs), published in Hamburg in 1785, fantasy and cantabile passages alternated with characteristic freedom. The Sonata in E minor (Wq 59/1) was more fantasia than conventional sonata. An impetuous Presto ended in a cadenza-like passage leading directly into the following Adagio, itself linked by modulatory passage-work to an Andantino finale in E major. After building up to a crashing fortissimo, the movement defied all expectations by ending on a single note, pianissimo.
Mozart’s Suite in C major, K399, composed in Vienna early in 1782, can be seen as a bow to J. S. Bach’s keyboard suites, with its stately Ouverture in the French style and conventional succession of dances (Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande). Mozart put his own stamp on the genre, however, employing enriched harmonies and keyboard textures and a progression of keys from C major to C minor to E-flat major. The suite remained unfinished: the Sarabande breaks off after only six measures. Bezuidenhout played Robert Levin’s adroit completion of the movement, and rounded out the program with two more short dances: the harmonically daring and richly contrapuntal Menuett in D major, K355, composed probably in the late 1780s, and the Gigue in G major, K574, composed in Leipzig in May 1789.
On April 20, 1782, Mozart enclosed a Prelude and Fugue (K394 in C major) in a letter to his sister:
Baron van Swieten . . . has given me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home (after I’ve played them through for him). . . . When Konstanze heard these fugues, she fell completely in love with them . . . and she did not relent until I composed a fugue for her . . .
Mozart’s prelude begins with a short Adagio that recalls the slow introduction to a symphony. This is followed by a free fantasia, Andante, full of bold sequences of broken chords and repeated octaves over triplet runs in bass, with a cadenza-like interruption before the return of the original figuration. With fluid technique, Bezuidenhout brought out the rhetorical intent in the dramatic dialogue between treble and bass, played out in extensive hand crossings. The double fugue that followed was equally enjoyable, its slightly archaic main subject joined by a second idea in fluent sixteenths that were then doubled in thirds, sixths, and finally in octaves.
The undisputed highlights of the program were the Sonata in A major, K331, and the Rondo in A minor, K311, dated March 11, 1787. In the Rondo, the expressive potential of chromaticism, beyond its merely decorative function, came to the fore, each repetition of the theme bringing new chromatic alterations and ornaments. Starting off gently in mid-range, the music gradually expanded in the interludes to the upper and lower reaches of the keyboard. Key changes, too, had their rhetorical effect, softening to F major and D-flat major, and brightening to A major. Bezuidenhout played this astonishingly expressive piece with the utmost attention to nuances of touch, dynamics, phrasing, and tempo.
Instead of an Allegro, the Sonata in A major opens with a set of six “character” variations on a gentle folk-like theme in lilting 6/8 that includes a highly ornamented Adagio and concludes with a sprightly Allegro. The first variation contrasts middle and bass registers, while the third, in minor, opens with velvety soft-pedalled tones followed by forte octaves, and the fourth features hand crossings and flute-like thirds in high register. A Minuet replaces the usual slow middle movement. In the second section of the Trio, harsh unison octaves interrupt with a hint of the Janissary music to come. The sonata was composed in Vienna sometime between 1781 and 1783, at a time when the Turkish threat to the Hapsburg Empire was a distant memory, Turkish themes were becoming popular in French theater, and Mozart’s own Abduction from the Seraglio was a rousing success. Bezuidenhout brought down the house with his rendition of the popular Turkish March finale, skillfully using the varied figuration as a vehicle for multiple changes of tone color that recalled a jangling Janissary band.
For an encore, we were treated to the beautiful Andante cantabile from the Sonata in C major, K330. All in all, this was a brilliantly conceived program, played with a winning combination of reflection and panache.