Kristian Bezuidenhout with Handel and Haydn Society: Boldness and Poetry

Nélida Nassar 02.24.2020

The Handel and Haydn Society commemorated Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year for the last three days with Kristian Bezuidenhout as its Valentine’s Day gift to Boston’s early music cognescenti. The South African Bezuidenhout is one of the world’s foremost keyboard artists, a talented harpsichordist who is equally at home on the fortepiano and modern piano. He also has become one of the most important musicians in the early music movement. In the first of the concerts (Friday, Feb. 14th), Bezuidenhout was both soloist and conductor in a program that included a Mozart symphony and a Beethoven piano concerto. The second evening (Feb. 15th) was dedicated exclusively to Beethoven, featuring his chamber music and two solo piano pieces. On that occasion, Bezuidenhuit was joined by six musicians of the H + H chamber ensemble, all of whom performed on period instruments, carrying the historically-informed resurgence well into its third generation. 

The Saturday program opened with Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, Op. 16. This work, which is dedicated to Prince Joseph Johann zu Schwarzenberg, is one of Beethoven’s earliest attempts at symphonic composition in a non-symphonic form. The result is a rather extravagant work for a small ensemble, although it maintains the typical three-movement format of such chamber works. The harmonically adventurous middle movement, marked Andante cantabile, is a combination of rondo and variation form, and it features an even distribution of material among the wind instruments, played here by Deborah Nagy, oboe; Andrew Schwartz; bassoon; Eric Hoeprich, clarinet and Todd Williams, horn. Two episodes, the first beginning in G minor, the second in B-flat minor, separate three appearances of the main theme, which is highly decorated upon each of its reprises.

For the finale – marked Allegro ma non troppo – provided a light-hearted close to the work. The soloists boldly marked the changes in register, dynamics, and instrumentation of the Rondo theme’s various statements, which were separated by fragmented episodes highlighted by Bezuidenhout’s athletic pianoforte passages. The balance between the various instruments which characterized the first two movements almost completely disappeared in the wake of Bezuidenhout’s energetic attack of the climax.

Next came two Rondos for keyboard soloist, Opus 51, Nos. 1 and 2, the most widely performed of all the composer’s rondos, with the exception of the 1795 Rondo a Capriccio, better known as “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” Bezuidenhout’s rendition of both pieces was graceful and communicated with Mozartian lightness. Each piece opens with a lively theme whose mixture of the playful and graceful conveys both innocence and elegance. The melody formed an arch-like shape in its jaunty rise and carefree descent. After this theme and related materials were heard a second time, Bezuidenhout transformed them, making them darker and more intense, and giving them muscle. The main theme periodically recurred, but the order of appearance of the other material gave these Rondos a rather loose structure. Lasting about five minutes each, they are not among the composer’s deeper creations, but Bezuidenhout infused them with much energy, youthful charm and poetry.

The program concluded with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3. This piece, which premiered at Count Lichnowsky’s palace, reveals the composer’s complete assimilation of the high Classical style. Considered the finest of the three Opus 1 trios, the C minor undoubtedly reaches, in its first and last movements, a level of dramatic intensity well above that of its two predecessors. It foreshadows the works in the same key composed in Beethoven’s maturity (e.g. the Fifth Symphony), works which express existential anxiety and the determination to overcome the scourge of fate. In the opening movement, marked – Allegro con brio – violinist Aisslinn Nosky, cellist Guy Fishman, and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout conveyed the drama and enthusiasm of the young Beethoven with their robust, forthright playing, forecasting the storm that will erupt in the Prestissimo ending.

Each of the musicians brilliantly demonstrated his/her prowess while keeping within the bounds of a trio. In the second movement they highlighted the extreme contrasts of the two sets of Andante cantabile variations. In the third movement they did justice to the elegance and wit of both sections of the Minuet. The vivid contrasts of this movement showed that even the young Beethoven had the power to “rock the boat” of tradition. The robust playing of all three soloists suggested the disruptive passion just beneath the music’s surface. The fiery finale seemed to evoke the troubled nature of the composer, who here has moved the piano trio a long way beyond Haydn. The close rapport between the Nosky and Fishman during the entire piece was especially striking in their exquisite timing and shading in the finale’s smoldering pianissimo conclusion, an ending which one images must have been quite unexpected by the original audience.

Under Bezuidenhout lead the architecture of the quintet, the rondos and the trio was much more clearly in evidence than in most performances. Every movement sounded more alive  and  energetic. Throughout the evening I was struck by the classiness and unity of the ensemble playing, as well as by the passion, color and verve with which the whole concert was delivered. Bezuidenhout’s interpretations were a welcome mixture of delicacy and passion, supported by a rich palette of dynamic nuances. His performance, like that of all the H + H soloists, was beyond criticism. Altogether, the concert was an electrifying experience, as was amply proved by the standing ovation that immediately followed it.   

Kristian Bezuidenhout, on pianoforte
Aisslinn Nosky on violin
Guy Fishman on cello
Debra Nagy on oboe
Eric Hoeprich on clarinet
Andrew Schwartz on bassoon
Todd Williams on horn

Photography: Chris Petre-Baume