Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mostly mild Mozart

The magic Kristian.
Kristian Bezuidenhout (left) is probably the most interesting period pianist on the planet; I'll never forget his interpretation of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with Handel and Haydn some years ago, and people still speak in awed tones of his local performances of Schubert.

I was surprised then to find myself pleased, but not thrilled, with his concert last Friday for the Boston Early Music Festival. Perhaps this is only because - after hearing him all but re-invent the Third - I now bring almost absurd expectations to any Bezuidenhout concert; coming from this particular pianist, superb musicianship and impeccable playing - both of which were on display in abundance last weekend - actually count as a slight disappointment.

Which is, I admit, unfair! And to be honest, in the latter half of his program - here and there in the Fantasia in C Minor (K. 396), and through most of the Sonata in B flat Major (K. 333) - you could hear Bezuidenhout's startling originality spark to life.  It was in the opening pieces - the familiar Sonata in F Major (K.332) and the variations on “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding” ("A Wife is a Glorious Thing") that the pianist seemed content to merely color (albeit beautifully) within the lines.

The biggest surprise of the first half of the program, in fact, was the performer's appearance. Bezuidenhout has slimmed down, and his trademark glasses are gone; the jolly musical companion of old is now a sleek modern monk. I was seated in the very first row (which in Sanders Theatre translates to maybe four or five feet from the performer; so close I could hear him breathe), and thus caught every subtlety of expression that passed over this sweetly intense performer's face - for the friend seated next to me, this ongoing double performance was almost distracting (he had to look away to concentrate on the music); for me, however, it was like being offered a magic key to the psychological states informing the playing.

So what was on Kristian's mind during the Sonata in F Major? Mostly intense reverence, it seemed to me - reflected in his impeccable playing. And it was easy to be seduced through this craftsmanship into a kind of musical dream, in which he and I had been magically transported to some eighteenth-century Austrian salon on a particular date in say, 1784 (I think the entire program came from the early 80's).

A word at this point about the piano, however. Built by the estimable R. J. Regier of Freeport, Maine, Bezuidenhout's instrument was modeled after pianos of Mozart's period by the noted Viennese builder Anton Walter. I'm sure it was quite an accurate copy, and I was fascinated to watch its pedal mechanism up close (pianos of that period only had two "pedals," which were actually nestled up against the body of the instrument, and controlled by the knees).

Still, I wasn't crazy about it. The piano had a pearly upper register (particularly under Bezuidenhout's subtle pedal work), and a resonant middle one - but its bass tended to thud, as many bass registers do in early pianos. And this was a bit of a problem in the F Major, with its famous anchoring low notes (which the pianist tended to pound for emphasis).

As a period performer, Bezuidenhout is committed to playing "age-appropriate" instruments for every composer he interprets. (Thus, when I heard the Beethoven, he was playing a truly wonderful instrument, again from Regier, modeled after pianos built some twenty-five years later, in the middle of the technological ferment that resulted in the modern instrument.) I chafe a bit at this period music rule when it comes to Mozart, however - who, as one of the last great classicists, tended to write "pure" music, which, like say Bach, isn't all that idiomatic to a particular instrument (you can translate Bach from one instrument to another, or even from the human voice to the orchestra, without losing its essential musical values).

Of course there's a strong historical argument for a Walter-like piano for Mozart - the ethereal tone of its upper register is subtly different from that of later versions. And this quality, admittedly, came more to the fore in the second half of the program, in which the pieces were more concentrated in those gorgeous upper octaves (so I was able to forget a bit about that jarring bass). And perhaps not coincidentally, as the music moved toward his instrument's "sweet spot," Bezuidenhout seemed to come alive interpretively. The opening Sonata was lovely, yes - just as elegant and gracefully capricious as it should be. Ditto for “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding” - although honestly, this is one time the great genius doesn't really unlock much in the way of depth from his opening theme; these eight variations really are just a brilliant experiment in ornamented extrapolation.

But there are mysterious riches to be found in the Fantasia in C Minor and Sonata in B flat Major, and Bezuidenhout mined them exquisitely (and okay, you could argue, as the program notes did, that in these pieces Mozart was indeed writing more idiomatically than usual). In the fantasia, Bezuidenhout conjured a sense of delicate spontaneity (even though this fragmentary caprice had in fact been written out by Maximilian Stadler), that shifted into an exquisite hush; meanwhile the sonata sang with a kind of haunting, searching quality that's unusual in Mozart, before closing with a deliciously spirited Alegretto. The encore was an even more gorgeous movement (the Andante cantabile) from the Sonata in C Major (K. 330). Bezuidenhout will be back at BEMF this summer, and you can bet I will be try to be there to hear him, whatever instrument he is playing.

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