Get to know Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepianist

Get to know Kristian Bezuidenhout

Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout returns to direct Tafelmusik this November in Mozart’s Piano. Leading up to the concerts, Marketing Manager Tim Crouch caught up with Kristian over the phone while he was at his home in London, England. Here is the full conversation.

Welcome back to Tafelmusik! What have you been busy with since we last saw you in 2013?

Well, I guess it’s safe to say that one of the biggest things that’s happened since then is the completion of the solo Mozart cycle for Harmonia Mundi. Ten CDs of solo keyboard music. When I started the cycle in 2009 I didn’t have a sense that when it came to an end it would feel so bittersweet. But when volume 9 and 10 came out it felt a little bit like the cast of Will & Grace saying, “This is the final episode.” It was a really big thing to have done, to spend so much time with Mozart’s solo keyboard music — to really investigate it as thoroughly as that.

Some of the recent highlights for me have been closer collaboration with many of the groups I have admired from afar. One of them was the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Elliot Gardiner: we had a big tour of piano concertos in November of last year. That was life-changing thing for me.

I have been increasingly directing more and more from the keyboard. Tafelmusik was really one of the first projects that I directed from the keyboard in repertoire like that. You know, being on the stage with a group as wonderful as Tafelmusik and exploring a program like that, playing piano concertos and symphonies and directing from the keyboard and playing continuo, is a whole different ball game. I was so touched by the positivity, and the energy and the classiness of the playing, and how natural that whole relationship felt. It was just terrific.

I think that experience really gave me the courage that I needed to set off down that path. There have since been projects with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, English Concert, Juilliard 415, and others. One of the highlights was directing my first St. Matthew Passion, with Dunedin Consort, in an essentially one-on-a-part performance which I directed from the harpsichord and organ. It was truly one of those moments that just changes your sort of DNA overnight.

Bach has played an ever-growing role in the last few years, including performing and recording all of the Bach violin sonatas with Isabelle Faust. Rediscovering my early training as a harpsichordist at the Eastman School and the chance to spend so much time working on Bach’s keyboard music has filled me with great joy.

Tell us a bit about the program you’ve selected for this week?

This program was designed along similar lines as the first one in 2013. I think it’s always been my belief that it’s wonderful to hear a full program of Mozart, but it’s also fantastic to hear music that influenced him. Hearing Mozart in context with music of the Bach sons provides us with fascinating insights into his working methods and where he finds inspiration in the music that he hears. With Carl Philipp and Johann Christian I’d like to think that there’s a certain sense that the fusion of styles that those two composers represent finds its natural outcome in the music of Mozart. We know that when Mozart was in London he met Johann Christian Bach, and something about JC really deeply impressed Mozart. For me, it’s this inexpressible, incredibly highly refined Italianate sense of melody that Johann Christian seems to conjure, almost singlehandedly, historically speaking. I think Mozart is very touched by the wonderful artlessness of the melodic writing of Johann Christian. As to Carl Philipp, one of the things that impressed Mozart was his incredible sense of making music sound as if it is almost improvised on the spot, sometimes going to places of real extremity in terms of the gesture. I find that when you hear CPE on a program of Mozart, it sounds much more kind of lyrical and beautiful, and Mozart conversely sounds much more revolutionary and at times eccentric. I love the fact that you hear composers so differently when you hear music of composers who influenced them around the same time. And I love the contrast in textures that you get between solo works for keyboard, symphonies, piano concertos, and then strings symphonies as well. The wonderful differences in colour and taste when you hear the JC Bach Symphony, curiously for him in the key of G minor, which is so much more Sturm und Drang than we might associate normally with JC Bach. Then the kind of laser clarity and brilliance of Carl Philipp’s incredibly difficult string writing, and how that bleeds into the mature string and wind sound that Mozart conjures for the piano concerto in the 1780s. It’s a marvelous look at the laboratory element of orchestration in this period I think.

You have a very full touring schedule. What do you do to stay healthy and happy while on the road?

When you get up at 5 o’clock in the morning for a flight, you have to tell yourself that that’s what you’re getting paid for, in a sense. Then you get on stage and play with wonderful colleagues in great halls, and that’s really the part that’s free.

You know, more and more you just look a little bit to the creature comforts. The thing that I look forward to most is finding a really lovely bar in a new city and going there with colleagues after a concert and having a really nice gin martini and just experiencing the new city. One of the things I love more than anything is getting up after breakfast and just walking for hours in any new city that I’m in, or any city for that matter. The feeling of not being a tourist while you’re supposed to be a tourist is so great, because you’re walking the street and experiencing city life. I’m not one these people who forces myself into a really strict museum or tourist itinerary, as that kind of stresses me out.

Having high-speed internet connections when you’re on the road is wonderful. Recently, I have been on a mad obsession with Bach cantatas, studying scores online in hotel rooms, and getting a grip on the text and the historical context. And then there are other times when there’s nothing better than settling down with Netflix and a martini.

Who is your favourite composer to perform?

I think maybe a year ago I would have said Mozart. But recently, I would say the feeling of enrichment that one gets when one plays Bach, and I don’t mean so much playing solo keyboard music. I have never had felt quite as intensely connected with something as I felt when directing the St. Matthew Passion.
I think it’s safe to say Bach’s large-scale vocal and orchestral music — that feeling of high and incredible, almost exhausting concentration that you need to play Bach — is probably the feeling is that I’m chasing most at the moment. It’s very different with Mozart. It’s much more natural and effortless somehow, even as a player. I think increasingly I’d say that Bach is the person that fulfills that role, especially in a collaborative situation, where I’m playing continuo in sort of larger organism.

What do you like to do on a day off?

I’d say that I’m super house-proud. Honestly, I love cleaning. I love getting home and just setting things straight, getting the house tip-top. The first thing I do is I go and buy fresh flowers. Probably because life is so chaotic and you’re at a different airport all the time, I love the feeling of structure and order. I then take my physiotherapist’s advice as much as I can, to relax, and to sleep!

What was your first music gig?

Probably the first time I thought that I was actually really 100% a professional musician was a solo recital that I gave in Utrecht in 2001 after winning the Bruges competition. It was a prize concert, so it wasn’t an official engagement in a sense, but I was paid a fee — the largest single amount I had been paid for anything —and I remember in that moment thinking, “OK, this is really what is happening now.” It was a kind of kooky concert in a coffee shop, a solo Mozart recital, and my brother came … it is a really strong memory.

What are the last three recordings you listened to?

I just opened Spotify to check what I’ve been listening to:

Michael Nyman’s No Time in Eternity, performed by Céladon. It’s a fifteen-minute piece for viols and countertenor with Byrd and Tallis. It’s exquisite, a total find for me as I was just browsing around: it was on a playlist from the Ambronay Festival. I was just so struck by the beauty of this piece.

An amazing relatively recent disc of Du Mont motets (O Mysterium) from Ensemble Correspondances, a French group directed by Sébastien Daucé. What they’re doing for late seventeenth-century French music, particularly Charpentier, is just unbelievable.

Bach Cantatas for soprano with Carolyn Sampson and Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, which was released in May 2017.

What is your “guilty pleasure” music to listen to?

Definitely ABBA — I’m not shy about it!

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

I think it’s very clear for me that that is John Eliot Gardiner. I think it’s a question of what reaches you at a certain time in your upbringing. For me growing up in Australia, many of his recordings came into my life and changed the whole way I thought about how this music would sound. Crucially, I was really struck by that when reading so many of his texts and interviews. He takes both the music and the details of the historicism of it seriously, but then at the end of the day, it is combined with really strong and sensible instincts and really top-quality playing. And I thought to myself at that moment, okay this is it. This is the field. I want to be playing old instruments because this sound just reaches me in a really visceral, strong, dramatic way. Having had the opportunity to work with him a couple of times, I am so deeply impressed by the ability for someone on that level to continually be asking themselves questions, and continually be forcing themselves to be on the highest level, despite the fact that it would be very easy to rest on decades of top-quality, path-breaking projects.

Where do you see yourself ten years in the future?

I would like to start my own group. As much as I love Mozart, the Bach sons, and Haydn, I’m dying to really get into German sacred repertoire and address a new idea for the large-scale Bach choral and orchestral works, especially the Passions. Of course, this has been done one-on-a part before, but I want it to again be reclaimed by the keyboard director at the heart of the proceedings. I think that is truly so absolutely characteristic of what the journey of directing these pieces means. I am dying to record both of the Passions with a group of eight to twelve singers and a very small orchestra. Although we’ve got countless recordings of these pieces, they do somehow bear renewed investigation every time. There is something about any audience that hears these pieces, when the performers are really engaged on that level … they think they could hear the whole thing, all three hours, again. I am so struck by that, deeply, with Bach. So, just more and more of that!


Join Kristian and Tafelmusik for Mozart’s Piano from November 9–12, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.

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Behind the Musik: Mozart’s Piano

Download the Program Notes | Download the Program Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
by Charlotte Nediger

J.C. Bach Symphony in G Minor, op. 6, no. 6

Of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many children, four enjoyed substantial careers as musicians: Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, born in Weimar to Maria Barbara; and Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, born some twenty years later in Leipzig to Anna Magdalena. The youngest son, Johann Christian, is often called “the London Bach.” He was by far the most travelled member of the Bach family. After his father’s death in 1750, the fifteen-year-old went to Berlin to live and study with his brother Emanuel. A fascination with Italian opera led him to Italy four years later. He held posts in various centres in Italy (even converting to Catholicism) before settling in London in 1762. There he enjoyed considerable success as an opera composer, but left a greater mark by organizing an enormously successful concert series with his compatriot Carl Friedrich Abel. Much of the music at these concerts, which included cantatas, symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, was written by Bach and Abel themselves. Johann Christian is regarded today as one of the chief masters of the galant style, writing music that is elegant and vivacious, but the rather dark and dramatic Symphony in G Minor, op. 6, no. 6 reveals a more passionate aspect of his work.

J.C. Bach is often cited as the single most important external influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart synthesized the wide range of music he encountered as a child, but the one influence that stands out is that of J.C. Bach. Mozart spent fifteen months in London as a boy, in 1764–65, and Bach took the seven-year-old prodigy under his wing. Wolfgang’s sister Nannerl recalls in her memoirs:

Herr Johann Christian Bach, the Queen’s teacher, sat [Wolfgang] between his legs: the former played a few bars, and the other continued, and in this way they played a whole sonata, and someone not seeing it would have thought that only one man was playing it.

In 1778 Bach visited Vienna, and Mozart wrote to his father:

You may easily imagine his joy and mine when we met again. […] I love him from my heart (as you know), and esteem him; and as for him, there is no doubt that he praises me warmly, not only to my face, but to others also, and not in the exaggerated manner in which some speak, but in earnest.

C.P.E. Bach Symphony for strings in C Major Wq 182/3

Mozart also greatly admired the works of the older Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, but from a distance: there is no evidence that the two ever met. Copies of keyboard solos by C.P.E. were included in the notebooks assembled by Leopold Mozart for his children. Wolfgang encountered his music again in Vienna at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who had served as Austrian envoy in Berlin. Van Swieten held weekly gatherings at his home in Vienna, to which he invited musicians to perform the works of the Lutheran Bachs, as well as the oratorios of Handel. Mozart was a regular guest at these assemblies. Here he would have encountered C.P.E.’s Six symphonies for string orchestra, Wq 182, commissioned by Van Swieten during a visit to Hamburg in 1773. Before the symphonies were handed over to van Swieten they were played through at the house of Professor Büsch in Hamburg. The violinist J.F. Reichardt led the ensemble on this occasion and wrote: “the original, bold concepts, the wide variety of forms and modulations, as well as their novel treatment, were received with enthusiasm.” He also noted that they were very difficult to play, but that the Baron had expressly requested that Bach put technical considerations aside when composing the works.

Mozart Symphony no. 29 in A Major

Mozart’s earliest symphonic writing shows the clear influence of Johann Christian Bach, and of his sojourns in Italy. In 1773, at the age of seventeen, he travelled to Vienna and must have heard some symphonies while he was there, for he returned to Salzburg and penned two decidedly Viennese works: the so-called “Little G-Minor” Symphony, K.183, and the Symphony in A Major, K.201 that we are performing this week. The symphonies clearly show the influence of Haydn, both in form and style. The A-Major Symphony was written with a relatively small orchestra in mind, with a wind section consisting of only oboes and horns. Evidently Mozart himself was pleased with the work, and he revived it several times after settling in Vienna without substantial revision.

Mozart Rondo in A Minor for solo piano, K.511

The Rondo in A Minor was composed in March of 1787, in a relatively quiet period in terms of output. The previous year, Mozart had enjoyed tremendous success with Marriage of Figaro, first in Vienna, and then in Prague. It had also been a busy year in terms of instrumental compositions, with several concertos, chamber pieces, piano works, and the “Prague” Symphony. By October of 1787 he was back in Prague with a new opera, Don Giovanni, but in the interim penned only a handful of instrumental works, the Rondo among them. It stands out amongst Mozart’s solo piano music as exceptionally intimate, with an air of melancholy and mystery. It was not written on commission, nor is there any dedication, and its elusive nature has led to conjecture that he wrote it for himself. It has been suggested that it may have been written in response to the death of a close friend: the aristocrat Count August Hatzfeld was a gifted violinist who had participated in many performances of Mozart string quartets. Mozart wrote to his father of the “sad death of my dearest and best friend, the Count von Hatzfeld. He was just 31, like me; I do not feel sorry for him, but pity both myself and all who knew him as well as I did.” Scholars have noted that the influence of C.P.E. Bach’s piano music can be felt in the Rondo, and pianists have remarked that it looks forward to Schumann and Chopin in its deeply personal expression.

Mozart Concerto for piano no. 12 in A Major, K.414

The A-Major Piano Concerto is one of three concertos performed at Mozart’s Lenten concerts of 1783. Composed a year after Mozart’s move to Vienna, it is also the first of the great series of fifteen piano concertos he composed in the capital in the 1780s. On December 28, 1782, he wrote to his father:

I must write in the greatest haste, as it is already half past five and I have asked some people to come here at six to play a little music. I have so much to do these days that often I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels. The whole morning, until two o’clock, is spent giving lessons. Then we eat. After this meal I must give my poor stomach a short hour for digestion. The evening is therefore the only time I have for composing and of that I can never be sure, as I am often asked to perform at concerts. There are still two concertos wanting to make up the series of subscription concerts. These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are also passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less discriminating cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.

Despite the busy schedule, Mozart had completed the remaining two concertos (K.413 and 415) a few weeks later. In January he placed a notice in the Wiener Zeitung advertising carefully copied manuscript copies of all three concertos, to be sold by subscription only from his apartment on the Hohe Brücke. His father suggested that the price of four ducats was too high, but Mozart responded, “I believe that I should earn at least one ducat for each concerto, and I can’t imagine that anyone could get it copied for one ducat!” His father may have been right, for sales were low, but the concerts were successful, and Mozart’s reputation as both composer and pianist greatly enhanced. Two years later the three concertos were engraved and published by the Viennese publishing firm Artaria as Opus 4.

Noteworthy in the A-Major Concerto is the middle movement, based on a theme from the Overture to La calamita de cuori by Johann Christian Bach. Bach had died a few months before the concerto was written, and the beautiful Andante is a touching musical epitaph to Mozart’s mentor.


PROGRAM LISTING
Kristian Bezuidenhout, guest director & fortepiano soloist
November 9—12, 2017, Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735–1782)
Symphony in G Minor, op. 6, no. 6 (London/Amsterdam, 1770)
Allegro
Andante più tosto adagio
Allegro molto

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH (1714–1788)
Symphony for strings in C Major, Wq 182/3 (Hamburg/Vienna, 1773)
Allegro assai
Adagio
Allegretto

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791)
Symphony no. 29 in A Major, K.201 (Salzburg, 1774)
Allegro moderato
Andante
Menuetto & Trio
Allegro con spirito

W.A. MOZART
Rondo in A Minor for solo piano, K.511 (Vienna, 1787)

W.A. MOZART
Concerto for piano no. 12 in A Major, K.414 (Vienna, 1782)
Allegro
Andante
Rondo: Allegretto

There will be a 20-minute intermission.


Kristian Bezuidenhout’s appearance is generously sponsored by Margaret & John Catto.


Join us for Mozart’s Piano from November 9–12, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.

Mozart’s Piano: The Fortepiano

The piano used in our performances of Mozart’s Piano by fortepiano virtuoso Kristian Bezuidenhout was made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in 1997 in The Plains, Virginia, outside Washington, DC. It is modelled on the work of the eighteenth-century Viennese maker Anton Walter, and has a keyboard range of just over five octaves (from FF to g”’). Knee levers are used to raise the dampers, and a hand stop operates the moderator (a piece of cloth that slides into place between the hammers and strings to produce a muted effect). Veneered in curly cherry, the case is primarily of spruce.

Walter Piano

Gabriel Anton Walter (1752–1825) was part of a cadre of piano makers, performers, and composers living in Vienna. Walter and his colleagues Stein, Hofmann, Kober, and Schantz worked closely with Haydn, Mozart, Hummel, and Beethoven. Each maker had his own designs and brought special qualities to the instruments, which the composers used to advantage. Haydn praised Walter’s pianos for their brilliance and complained about the prices he charged, but ultimately preferred the pianos of Schantz. Beethoven, while liking Walter’s instruments, also expressed concern about their economics.  Acquainted with most of the German and Austrian makers and often praising them, at the time of his death Mozart owned an early-period Walter of a slightly different design than the more usual model heard tonight.

Thomas and Barbara Wolf have made reproductions of historical keyboard instruments since 1969. Originally trained as musicians (he a bassist, she a pianist), they apprenticed in the workshops of Frank Hubbard and Eric Herz in Boston. In 1974 they moved to Washington, DC to begin a long association with the keyboard collection at the Smithsonian Institution, filling the roles of restorer, conservator, and technician. The Wolfs make a wide variety of clavichords, harpsichords, and fortepianos based on originals from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Restoration and maintenance of antique instruments is also important to the Wolfs: their work can be found in the collections of several museums.

We are delighted that the builder Barbara Wolf will join us to tune and maintain the fortepiano. If you attend a concert, please feel free to welcome her and ask her questions about the instrument. However, we ask that you leave her in peace during the intermission tuning.


Join us for Mozart’s Piano from November 9–12, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.


University of Toronto: Faculty of MusicThe fortepiano belongs to the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and we are very grateful for the very generous loan of the instrument for this week’s concerts. Special thanks are extended to Dean Don McLean and to Piano Technician Gordon Christie for their support and assistance.