The fluent and skilled fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, strikingly bearded and mustachioed this time, visited Cambridge’s 1st Church Congregational Friday for the Boston Early Music Festival, bringing undeniably keen and thoughtful intellect and extraordinarily transparent technique. In his well-spoken and informed pre-concert discussion/illustration , he said that in presenting a program of Beethoven he was likely pushing the envelope of what might be defined as “Early Music.” Yet he made a convincing case for how early Beethoven fit the model.
In the 1780s, he told us, Mozart was the hero to audiences, enjoying a very successful and lucrative career in Vienna. Ten years later, Beethoven is in Vienna and asks of himself ”What should I do that sets me apart from this acknowledged genius?”
Bezuidenhout suggested that any pianist/composer of the time (Haydn, Beethoven) would be expected to pay artistic homage to Mozart, whose skills at the keyboard, especially improvisation, merited wide celebration. In fact, in those days, there had to be improvisation. Bezuidenhout then went on to make the case that Beethoven’s two Rondos op. 51 (1797/8) and the Piano Sonatas in D, Op.10 No. 3 (1797/8) and in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique” (1797/8) and Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, Hob. 17/6 (1793) all reflected the influence of improvisation. And indeed, when listened to with this suggestion in mind, one perceived this notion quite clearly. If only for this illumination of that interesting idea, the evening was memorable.
The two Op. 51 Rondos—aside from their structure—could not be more different. The earlier in C major reflects many of the elements of High Classicism that pervaded the concert scene, all worked out under Beethoven’s uniquely creative compositional style, yet it is somewhat contained and reflexive, more redolent of its past and present conventions than forward-looking. The G major Rondo, written only a year later, looks ahead to the composer’s later genius. A broader and emotionally deeper work than its sibling, the G major employs a much wider range of the keyboard, the harmonies stray much farther afield. Bezuidenhout illuminated at the keyboard what he had explicated in his talk.
Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 ushers in an aural experience, worlds apart from that of the Rondos. Emotions are more deeply expressed, harmonic direction more daring. Gabe C. Alfieri’s excellent essay recalls that pianist Angela Hewitt considers this composition “…the first masterpiece in the cycle of sonatas.” Again, it was instructive to hear how Beethoven’s intellect had expanded to fill this with his path-breaking invention and innovation. The sonata’s structure is remarkable. It begins in expected fashion, but then departs from the norm by having its unusually short development section reappear in more extensive form in the midst of the recapitulation. The result is Beethoven’s stretching the term “sonata form” to meet his particular creative construct, once again channeling a form of improvisation. The second movement, Largo e mesto (broad and sad), begins dolefully and leads into a dirge-like middle section, preparing for the movement’s most remarkable moments at its center. They start with several iterations of wide ranging and powerful statements sounded at the bottom of the keyboard that dramatically climb to near its top. Here the tonal colors of the 1998 R.J. Regier-built fortepiano (an instrument patterned after 1828/30 originals by Conrad Graf and Ignaz Bösendorfer) were much in evidence. The finale, another rondo, is again miles away from the op. 51s. Here, Beethoven begins with a spare three-note figure, and from that seemingly skeletal structure fleshes out a most extraordinary set of elaborations upon it. At the end, aside from the impact of the music itself, one was intrigued by the diverse invention across these three works, all composed at nearly the same time.
Haydn’s Variations in F Minor from 1793 was for this writer a highlight of the evening. Bezuidenhout had piqued our interest in his remarks on its melancholy and inward-looking nature, unusual for a form that often is noted for its more extrovert nature. Haydn subtitled his Variations as “un piccolo divertimento,” yet in the hearing its depth of invention belied that diminutive description. It is, as musicologist Michelle Fillion describes “stunningly original in both architecture and use of the piano…a milestone in the Romantic variation style.” It made an ideal program companion to Beethoven, as we heard in Haydn’s unusually profound composition the seeds of what may have been the later composer’s inspiration to step boldly beyond the conventional constraints of harmonic invention.
And speaking of stepping beyond conventional constraints, what better example could there be than Beethoven’s groundbreaking Sonata in C Minor, op. 13, “Pathetique,” where drama, intense chromaticism, powerful dissonances and precipitously changing mood swings figure so prominently? This chestnut sounded anew on Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano, whose tonal palette fully unfurled. Throughout the evening it had been instructive to watch how skillfully Bezuidenhout employed his instrument’s two pedals, one for sustaining, the other for una corda effect. Here, in this remarkable sonata, the artist’s knowing use of these two pedals added requisite and welcome dramatic colors and sonorities to underscoring the emotional arc.
This lecture-recital by many measures illuminated and edified. My very few misgivings centered on moments where, under his elegant touch, Bezuidenhout’s instrument once or twice appeared to not quite “speak” the way he had intended. This seemed momentarily and understandably to break his concentration. And perhaps his closeness to the first row of audience may have crowded him a bit, especially when loud coughing erupted from only a few feet away. Why was I not as transported by the amazing range of this artist’s gifts as I had been in his previous recitals? Was this partly attributable to the somewhat gauzy acoustics that 1st Church offered to the particular sonorities of this instrument?
In sum, though, thanks are due the performer and presenter for this high-minded, beautifully essayed and very thoughtful appearance. Bezuidenhout’s singular, elegant artistry thoroughly engaged our ears and minds.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.