Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano, Works by Mozart, Telus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre, March 8, 2015.

If one looked back only a decade or so, performing the integral Mozart sonatas on the fortepiano might have been regarded as quite credible, but still something of an experiment.  Now, it is an established industry.  With fine traversals from first Ronald Brautigam, then Andreas Staier, and now Kristian Bezuidenhout – all very distinguished and individual artists -- I think we almost have an embarrassment of riches.  Bezuidenhout has recently completed his recorded survey for Harmonia Mundi, and that is what we sampled here. 

Critical to any fortepiano experience is the sound of the instrument and the venue in which it is placed.  The instrument was a five-octave fortepiano, made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf (Washington, D.C.), after Johann Schantz, c.1790, with knee-pedals and a ‘moderator’.  Provided by School of Music, University of British Columbia, I thought that it exhibited a nice tonal palette as well as allowing considerable flexibility in dynamics.  The venue was the Telus Studio Theatre, the mini concert hall inside the Chan Centre, basically a tall, narrow cylindrical shell with floor seating around the instrument in the middle, with two tiers of balcony above.  This had all the right intimacy -- and the sound projected almost perfectly into the space.

What is impressive about Bezuidenhout’s approach is that, as much as anyone else, he has really thought through these works in fortepiano terms, which is quite different from taking an existing interpretation on a concert grand and simply transferring it to the more intimate instrument.   The artist is so acutely aware of where the fortepiano can go and where it cannot, and what range of textures, colours and articulations can be feasibly sought.  Naturally, things sound a little bit different: some phrases more angular, some interludes more self-effacing, others surprisingly brusque and powerful -- but this pianist’s journey is always held together by a very sharp intellect and obvious sensitivity. One thing that certainly stood out at this concert was Bezuidenhout’s sheer love for every note of this music and in particular its ingenuity.

Photos by Sherry Wang

Photos by Sherry Wang

The fluidity of the lines in the opening Adagio of the early Sonata, K. 282 was really something to marvel at, but the pianist knew exactly when to inject rougher edges later on.  His sense of balance between deliberation and sparkling caprice was unerring throughout, and I doubt that I have heard a fresher performance.  The more obscure Suite in C, K.399 has a tendency to prolixity, but I think that he still made the work add up to a ‘story’ of sorts, finding a movement and balance in its sometimes formal constructions and a lovely dreaminess in the Allemande in particular.

I could go on about the evenness of Bezuidenhout’s runs and the imagination of his phrasing, but one thing for sure is that his Rondo in A minor, K. 511 was exquisite.  It found a sense of reverie and fantasy that was disarming, the natural flow and inner feeling of the playing setting the seal on a lovely emotional journey.

I was almost as impressed by the performance of the more popular works after the intermission.  The Fantasy, K. 475 was in some ways more varied in expression than usual but sometimes struck me as too deliberate. The famous K. 331 gave me plenty to think about. There was elegance and shape aplenty in the opening Tema con Variazione, hinting at a harpsichord-like timbre and articulation at points.  The pianist then turned to quiet intimacy before the Alla Turca buoyantly propelled the work home.  Here, a lot of the brusque bottom of the instrument was in evidence, combining with a stunning array of sharp rhythmic and textural contrasts and a concealed charm in the many right hand runs.    

The only thing that I was slightly uncomfortable about in this delightful recital was the use of the ‘moderator’ which allows whole or part of a section of a work to be played with a different registration.  I especially noted this in K. 331. I remember when celebrated harpsichordists like George Malcolm got such pleasure from varying registrations on the Goff harpsichord, but now I don’t like it.  I am not sure that I warm to it on the fortepiano either.  I guess the real question is one of authenticity: Was it common practice for performers around 1800 to use this functionally-designed feature of their instrument as a critical input into interpretation?


© Geoffrey Newman 2015