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Bezuidenhout Leads and Plays

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Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who has appeared several times as soloist with the Handel & Haydn Society, made his H + H conducting debut, leading its virtuoso period ensemble from the keyboard in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Mozart’s A Major Rondo, K.385, and Symphony No. 36, K.425, along with the H + H premiere of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Symphony in C Major, Wq. 182/3. Friday night’s Jordan Hall program repeated on Sunday afternoon.

Emanuel Bach spent some 30 years in the service of the flute-playing Frederick II of Prussia, an enthusiastic amateur musician. Much admired as a composer, performer, and author of a widely read “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments,” he later succeeded Telemann as Kantor and music director in Hamburg. As Teresa Neff explained in her notes, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Austrian ambassador to Prussia in the 1770s, provided an all-important link between Emanuel Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although the composer was no longer at the Prussian court, van Swieten became acquainted with his music during his own years in Berlin, and in 1773 commissioned six symphonies for strings from him. Returning to Vienna, he brought Bach’s music with him and also became an early promoter of a newly revived interest in Austria in the music of J. S. Bach and Handel. In the early 1780s, Mozart famously encountered works of J. S. Bach and Handel performed at van Swieten’s weekly salons, and both he and the young Beethoven expressed their admiration for Emanuel Bach’s music on many occasions. Bezuidenhout and the H + H ensemble, headed by concertmaster Aislinn Nosky, opened their program with the Symphony in C Major, Wq 182/3, the third in the 1773 set. Beginning in a sunny and energetic C Major in forthright unison, sudden interjections on A flat and F sharp lent an air of sudden darkness to the drama. Bezuidenhout provided substantial keyboard support in tutti sections, conducting with emphatic waves of the head and sweeping arm gestures, backing off or even remaining silent during soloistic episodes in the violins. Harmonic excursions to distant keys brought a foretaste of the deeply expressive offbeat chromatic motives exchanged between the violins in the Adagio that followed, Bach’s “sensitive style” epitomized. Here Bezuidenhout’s direction lovingly shaped seemingly disjointed motives, marked with many gradations of forte and piano, into a coherent flow of ideas. Chromatic touches and crisply executed triplets ornamented the carefree final Allegretto.

J. Regier of Freeport, Maine modeled the very fine fortepiano we heard after examples by Viennese builders Conrad Graf (active 1811-41) and Ignaz Bösendorfer (active from 1828). Over its compass of six and a half octaves, it shows a marked difference in tone color between the highest and lowest notes and, because its bass strings do not cross over the mid-range strings, the bass sound is crisp and clear with a sharper attack and faster decay than on a modern grand. Beethoven owned a Graf in 1825, but in 1803, when he premiered the Third Piano Concerto, he would have played a smaller, lighter instrument with a five-octave compass. In Jordan Hall, however, Regier’s piano rang out gloriously, its low notes a match for the H + H ensemble’s bassoons, cellos, and basses, its mid-range singing, its top notes ethereal. Filling a double role in Beethoven’s concerto as conductor and soloist, Bezuidenhout accompanied the tutti sections of the opening exposition at the keyboard, then stood to lead the more lightly scored sections. After the brash octave scale that announced the piano’s entry, he demonstrated the many subtle changes that Beethoven rings on the three distinct motives of the opening theme, alternating incisiveness with melting lyricism. Every trill was melodically expressive; the most virtuosic passages never lost their sense of direction. Crisp articulation in the horns, trumpets, and timpani maintained a lively tempo, while the choir of virtuoso wind players provided a perfect complement to the piano’s singing tone. Beethoven’s cadenza has its own extraordinary moments, and here Bezuidenhout shone, calling on the fortepiano’s bassoon and moderator pedal stops to vary the tone color. The cadenza reviews the content of the entire movement in unexpected ways: the opening arpeggio becomes a fugato, the lyrical second theme is stretched out and given new accompaniment. A trill brought it all to an apparent close, only to continue with a few more improvisatory flights punctuated by the timpani before piano and orchestra wound to a close. The elegiac Largo constituted a lyrical interlude whose leisurely tempo allowed a richness of ornamental detail that Bezuidenhout exploited to the full, from affecting passages in double thirds to dizzying scales, turns, and arpeggios that carried their own melodic logic. The startling return to C Minor is only one of the quirky features of the seemingly innocent Rondo Finale, which Bezuidenhout and the H + H players carried off with appropriate humor and panache.

The autograph manuscript of Mozart’s Rondo in A Major for Piano and Orchestra, K386, is signed on its first page and dated Vienna, October 19, 1782. After Mozart’s death it was sold by his widow, and eventually dismembered into many fragments now scattered around the world in public and private collections. As more fragments have come to light, it has been reconstructed in a number of performing editions. Presumably Bezuidenhout made his own reconstruction of this intriguing work. Memorable passages included a dialogue with the solo cello (Guy Fishman) in one of the episodes, and one could only marvel at the melodic grace with which Bezuidenhout executed the most virtuosic pianistic feats.

Kristian Bezuidenhout leads Handel and Haydn from the fortepiano (Sam Brewer photo)

In July 1783 Mozart traveled from Vienna to Salzubrg in order to present his bridc Constanze to his father and sister. On the way home at the end of October they stopped in Linz where, according to a letter to his father, Mozart composed his Symphony in C Major, K.425, in a matter of four or five days. The first performance took place in Linz on November 4th, most likely with Mozart directing from the keyboard. From the stately double-dotted opening to the tonally diffuse measures that follow, the Adagio introduction reflects a new seriousness and expansiveness in Mozart’s instrumental writing, the presence of trumpets and timpani adding to the solemnity. The spirited theme of the opening Allegro never settles into regularity; a march over a running bass follows, and the second theme, expected to enter in the dominant, instead appears in E Minor in a return of march-like rhythm. The development makes much of a connecting passage in the violins that reappears, tentatively at first, in the coda, before asserting itself in the tutti close. Mozart retained the trumpets and timpani in the second movement, a scoring that completely changed the character of the F Major Andante from a gentle cantilena to a movement of intense emotional weight. The pompous minuet that follows is amusingly set off by a “rustic” trio, a solo oboe in the first half duetting with a single bassoon in the second half. Played at breakneck speed, the Presto Finale contrasts a straightforward tune with passages in mock-serious jagged polyphony that lean toward minor keys. With their keen sense of style and pacing, Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn players seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience did.   

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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  1. I’ve never read a better review of a concert, one that’s not only beautifully and clearly written but also gives knowledgeable, tasteful, balanced attention to musical structure, performance quality, instrumental timbre, the lives of the composers, and the place of the compositions in their oeuvres. Bravissima Virginia Newes, and thank you BMI!

    Comment by John Kirsch — February 17, 2020 at 5:23 pm

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