This is an extended version of the Q&A with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout which appears in the June-August 2014 issue of Early Music Today; the interview was conducted by Derek Adlam.

Over the last 50 years or so a number of players of the early piano have shown that the modern concert-grand does not trump all that came before it. We can include in that select constellation of musicians Kristian Bezuidenhout, a brilliant young star with astonishing mastery of the fortepiano who was a rare first-prize winner of the 2001 Bruges Fortepiano Competition. In conversation with him I suggested that he might have come to the fortepiano through a primary interest and identification with its repertoire – so music first, instrument second, the fortepiano simply necessary to realize the music in its ‘true colours’.

Kristian Bezuidenhout: Absolutely. Looking back on things, it’s clear that Mozart’s music caught my attention – lit a fire under me, so to speak – more than any other composer. Living in Australia at the time, I was rather an obsessive CD collector and it’s true to say that a few recordings really changed my life. These included John Eliot Gardiner’s account of Figaro and also the piano concertos with Malcolm Bilson – recordings I first heard at the age of around 13 or 14. Mozart was much beloved in my parent’s household so the ‘material’ itself was familiar, but nothing prepared me for how much fresher and bolder this well-known music now sounded. Gone were the puzzling tendencies to miniaturize and emasculate; gone was the mind-numbingly dull mezzo forte sheen. Mozart on period instruments was a sound-world that instantly spoke to me for its human, indeed sometimes flawed quality, and I was determined to find an point of entry. That would have to wait a few years until my studies began in earnest at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, New York.

Derek Adlam: It is, of course, not just a matter of tone-colour but of an intimate relationship with an instrument. A sense of energy in reflecting energy out, of being able to take an instrument to dynamic extremes, being able to exploit characteristic differences of bass, middle and treble registers, even the instrument’s rapid decay. And no sense of that deadening miniaturization that can so easily happen when playing an early repertoire on the modern piano. Do you agree, broadly, with this?

KB: Without a doubt. In a sense it reminds me a little of Mozart’s approach to orchestration, instrumental colour, and especially his writing for singers. It’s clear that, while he can write music that is tailor-made to the artist in question, their sound, technical parameters, range etc, his writing also poses great but, crucially, not insurmountable challenges – in stark contrast to Beethoven! For example, he wrote the first soprano solos for Constanze in the C minor Mass, K.427, and we know that he wrote preparatory exercises for her (notably for the Et incarnatus est): it’s not that she couldn’t do what he asked of her, it just needed a tiny bit of adjustment and tweaking before it was ready to be presented to the world.

Mozart ‘meets’ the pianos of Stein in 1777 and from then on magically understands the deepest and most arcane secrets of these instruments (and by extension those of Walter later on). This is a part of his indescribable genius: he is exposed to a new piece of ‘equipment’ – like the clarinet in the hands of Stadler, which emerges as such a vivid new colour and voice in Die Entführung (compared with Idomeneo of a year earlier) – and instantly he understands its raw potential, uniqueness and latent beauty.

My first encounter with a five octave Walter fortepiano was in 1998 in a masterclass with Malcolm Bilson at the Eastman School of Music, playing the Sonata in F major, K.332. Here for the first time (the shock of playing such a refined and difficult-to-control action aside) I felt that paralysing feeling of having to hold back simply disappear. In the first movement plunge into the Sturm und Drang world of D minor, on the fortepiano I was reminded of the first time I heard the Gardiner/Bilson reading of the D minor piano concerto K.466: the terror and force of that first tutti forte outburst remains one of the most inspiring and unforgettable moments.

DA: In your solo playing of Mozart I am particularly struck by the way you build strong formal structures, show the music’s true stature, and at times reveal a darkness as well. That is the quality of your musical insights, of course, but is a fortepiano a necessary component in producing such performances?

KB: The scale of sonority – the way sound reaches us – plays such a massive role in the understanding of structural questions that I suppose my answer is yes, having a fortepiano does impact that enormously. It’s all about the devilish details though. I’ve always felt, for example, that tuning and temperament create a sort of topography in addition to the obvious one created by differences in register. This suggests a kind of extra ‘narrative’ element – so too, does the moderator, a device that slips a muting layer of cloth between hammer and strings. I feel these extra elements, and crucially a highly sophisticated and varied approach to pedaling (a topic sometimes neglected in discussions of Mozart playing), are inextricably linked to Mozart’s expressive conception of the piano.

Your comments about formal structures are interesting, since I’ve always thought of myself as someone more attuned to local events! I’ve always been driven to create a sense of the theatrical in Mozart, with timings – approaches to rubato, agogic accents, delay and displacement – that emulate the delightful inconsistency and spontaneity of such parameters in a good performance of a Mozart opera. I’ll never forget a particularly brilliant example that Malcolm Bilson cites in the first movement of K.311 where Mozart abruptly shifts from B minor to G major and doesn’t bother to notate any kind of fermata or extra beats for dramatic effect. Malcolm’s contention – and I agree deeply – is that no sensitive performer of a passage like this in the 18th century would possibly have rushed through an important ‘scene change’ like this. Allowing oneself the ‘license’ – and I use that word with its pejorative undertones since conservatory training can sometimes quash these tendencies – is a vital part of the language of expressive Mozart playing.

DA: In the East Neuk Festival in July you will be playing the Mozart K.452 and Beethoven Op.16 Quintets in E-flat major with the Marsyas wind ensemble. This will be a great exercise in balance, level and colour. What are your feelings about the musical and personal relationships, the give and take of such chamber pieces as you match and balance, quote and answer the other players as together you built the performances? Will you be performing and recording more chamber music in the future?

KB: Mozart’s writing for winds is one of the great miracles of the late 18th century. In this sense I find he is streets ahead of Haydn and Beethoven. All the characters in the wind Harmonie are vividly drawn (like the best characters in the mature operas) and yet the sheer number of colour combinations he draws from his tool-kit is staggering. The Quintet for piano and winds, K.452 – like the quartets for piano and strings K.478 and K.493 – is a piece that bursts forth into the world with no previous artistic models. Miraculously, it arrives in perfect order. It’s a fascinating thing that a piece of chamber music like K.452 (supposedly written for private performance) is presented for the first time in a public setting at one of Mozart’s Viennese subscription concerts – a charming paradox that inspires Mozart to great heights of humour and genre-bending. Here we have a piece that is simultaneously piano concerto, wind serenade and piano quintet. The summation of this wacky hybrid is the written-out cadenza in the last movement which, hilariously, is for all the instruments and not the solo piano.

Playing K.452 and Beethoven Op.16 with Ensemble Marsyas will be like a sort of combination ice cream stand or juice bar: the combinations and flavour possibilities are just endless and it will be a total delight to explore these together. These pieces emerge as heady, kaleidoscopic and utterly idiomatic. That being said, matters of balance are always tricky with fortepiano and historical winds. The sheer richness of the wind writing (Mozart and Beethoven both) always has the potential to overwhelm the piano. But these were great piano virtuosos, and they knew just how much of that the listener can take before the piano steps right back into the spotlight.

More chamber music is absolutely top on the list of my priorities. I’m particularly keen to play and study the Mozart piano quartets, and also the piano trios which are often written-off but are absolutely charming.

DA: Having a first rate bassoonist available is reason enough to play Mozart’s K.292 duo. What do feel about the principal of new arrangements of pieces (in an appropriate manner, of course), of the mutability of music of this period? Will you be using your own realization or Bill Waterhouse’s?

KB: Peter Whelan is an astonishingly beautiful player and I’m greatly honoured to join him and his dynamite ensemble for this project, so yes, that’s reason enough to play K.292. The jury’s still out on exactly what notes I’ll end up playing for this, but I’ll certainly take as a starting point Bill Waterhouse’s excellent arrangement, perhaps mix it up with some unexpected interventions of my own. It’s such a charming piece and might help to relieve the gloom of the Mozart Sonata in C minor, K.457 and the Fantasie in C minor, K.475 that we’ve included in the programme.

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