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Kristian Bezuidenhout: Rising Star in Early Keyboard Music

May 28, 2014

Kristian BezuidenhoutEarly-music keyboard specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout conveys his incisive thoughts with every vowel and consonant crisply and perfectly articulated. He sounds separated at birth from the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

Bezuidenhout has quickly advanced up the ranks in the early-music world to become one of its leading fortepiano interpreters of solo Mozart piano works. He will complete his multivolume recording set of Mozart piano works for Harmonia Mundi USA later this year.

Bezuidenhout will make his West Coast debut during the Early Music America/Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, June 1–8. On June 5, at 5 p.m., he will perform on a Viennese fortepiano in a solo recital of Mozart, and more. On June 7, at 8 p.m., he will join members of the Philharmonia Chamber Players and Artistic Director and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan in Bach family keyboard concertos.

In a telephone interview, SFCV spoke with Bezuidenout in London.

You’ve been quoted as saying you’re not interested in simply touring around the world with the same Mozart piano concertos. What makes the combination of soloist and director just right?

I like to look at the season when it’s being planned, even two or three years in advance. My management will say, “Look, this orchestra would really like to do a Mozart concerto with you and they propose the following conductor.” To be honest, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve not been disappointed in using this as my yardstick up until now. I’ve had the good fortune to work with such people as Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner, and Christopher Hogwood. And, in those cases, of course, it’s a given because these people have devoted their lives to this sort of repertoire. So they come into the project with massive experience to bear.

But it’s tricky; you don’t know, sometimes. I’ve had one or two experiences with very well-known figures in the early-music field where you realize that questions of style and personal opinion are just as decisive, and kind of divisive as well, when you’re playing a Mozart piano concerto with a so-called historical instrument expert.

I think when I mentioned that comment, I was responding to a specific engagement that I was asked to do in which basically there was no rehearsal time; there wasn’t even a meeting with the conductor. I thought, Is this what playing concertos with an orchestra really needs to be? That’s just something I’d like to avoid as much as I can.

Has the dream come true for the 12-year-old boy in Brisbane, who was thrilled in 1991 by the Mozart Bicentennial?

That’s something I like to think about a lot. I have to say that on every level it has. I will never forget in 1991, when Phillips released the complete Mozart edition, which I was obsessed with buying. I never got it, of course, because it was way too expensive. But there were a number of decisive recordings that entered my life around that time. I got John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Mozart Requiem. The set of Mozart piano concertos with Malcolm Bilson. And the other thing I got around that time was one of the recordings of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; I can’t remember which one. I just thought What would it be like to live in Europe and work with these people, and actually have conversations with these greats of the field? Somehow all of this happened so quickly. You can’t imagine! I won this competition in 2001, which was very nice. Then, all of a sudden, you realize that the early-music community, as sort of famous as it is, is incredibly tightly knit and small. You start to all of a sudden be involved with projects with the best orchestras and wonderful conductors. And sometimes one has to really pinch oneself because it’s a lot very soon.

At this point, what’s the most gratifying aspect of this life that you’ve chosen for yourself?

Of course, it’s being on stage and it’s the thrill of applause and all that. And it’s visiting wonderful venues and cities, and really experiencing the world for all it has to offer. But it’s the little things that count. … I did a lied recital in Germany a few weeks ago, with Mark Padmore, and we did a Schuman and Schubert program, and Beethoven songs as well. You know, this is really territory that people are used to hearing on the Steinway with modern lied singers. And people came up to me to say, “I was so worried about hearing the Schuman played on the fortepiano, but it was really absolutely delightful and full of color and unexpected nuance.”

You find some people are really on your wavelength with every issue. Other people have differences of opinion on small levels of details, which is always very enlightening, and makes for better music making.

It’s those moments where you realize that there are always new discoveries to be made in the field, albeit small, but it gives one a sense of being involved in some kind of refreshment, as it were, and that’s what drew me so vividly and so deeply to the world of early music in the first place. This idea that there are still secrets to be learned, and a feeling of amazement and wonder of how extraordinary this material is. Even when one is really depressed and tired from a 5 o’clock in the morning flight, that keeps one going.

Do you think you’re bringing new ideas to old music?

I think that’s a pretty grand claim. I was very determined from the outset, with the Harmonia Mundi recording series of concerts, to paint the [Mozart] piano music in a different light. One, perhaps, with a little more flesh and blood; a little bit more inspired by the kind of excitement and drama that you associate with any of the big operas. I’ve been incredibly lucky that the press has really responded in that way. In small ways, I’d say, I agree with you. But, I wanted to be involved in early music because I was beguiled and completely won over by the combination of scholarship and performance that results in such excitement, basically. 

There are always new discoveries to be made in the field, but it gives one a sense of being involved in some kind of refreshment, and that’s what drew me so vividly and so deeply to the world of early music.

What attracted you to come to the Berkeley Exhibition and perform the pieces?

In the case of the orchestral program, it was very clear that it was going to be the harpsichord concerts of J.S. Bach. So I offered the big D-minor [BWV] 1052, which is really the most serious and path-breaking of the solo concertos. The original proposal, indeed, was for Nick [McGegan] and myself to play a double harpsichord concerto of J.S. Bach. I know in the last 48 hours we’ve had to change the program and that means, in fact, I’ll be playing a solo harpsichord concerto of C.P. Bach, instead, to end the program. It’s a really well-designed program that shows off some of the best music of the Bach sons and father Bach. You could hardly go wrong with that!

This is your major West Coast debut. Is it a harbinger of more frequent visits out this way?

This will be the first major early-music event I’ve done there. It’s so funny how these things go in waves. I hadn’t played on the West Coast at all, really. Now there’s Berkeley coming up next month, and then recitals in Vancouver and Seattle again, and a return engagement with the Seattle Symphony. So there’s a lot more which I’m totally delighted about. It’s a part of the world that I’m dying to explore more and, I think, also a place where early music is still taken incredibly seriously. And some of the finest instruments in America are on the West Coast, as well.

I was beguiled and completely won over by the combination of scholarship and performance that I find to be true of all these people that results in such excitement.

What are your major recording projects this year?

I’ve just come back from [recording] a disc of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart songs with Mark Padmore, which we finished last week here in London [Harmonia Mundi USA]. My next solo project with Harmonia Mundi will be in December when we record the last volumes, 8 and 9, of the complete works of solo keyboard by Mozart. It’s been five years, pretty much, of continuous solo Mozart, and so that will be really the end of a major era for me.

How does that feel for you? It will clearly be a benchmark in your professional career. Is there an emotional attachment to this, as well?

Deeply. I’m excited for it to be nearing its conclusion, but I’m also a bit heartbroken, actually. Every volume has taught me, and the producers, so much about this music. I didn’t realize how much depth was in it, in a certain way. There’s such a magical feeling to be kind of immersed in a language and a style for such a long time. It’s so freeing. It’s like playing Bach cantatas all year, or something like that. You just learn so much about the expectation, about the hidden meaning, about how to read between the lines in this music, and you only can really do that if you spend a lot of time with it.

So I will be pretty sad, come December. Happy/sad. You know, it’s kind of like a tear in your eye because you’re happy but also sad at the same time.

If you had two Mozart works to send in a time capsule to Mars, what would they be?

Wow! … Here’s what I’d say: I’d say [The Marriage of] Figaro would have to be one of them. I think Figaro is one of those pieces where, somehow, the stars just aligned in the most magical way. And you have perfection of form, genre, characterization, musical material, pacing — everything. I just think Figaro is really one of the most extraordinary pieces of the entire 18th century.

But I think, perhaps, if I had to say right now, the other piece I would send would be the C-major piano concerto, K. 503, No. 25. … I think, given the vast quantity of piano concertos that he wrote, and how consistently brilliant they are, I’d have to say one piano concerto would be on the list. And right now, for some reason, K. 503 is the piece that is just beyond words. It’s magnificent. It’s rarely played, for some reason. And it’s close to Figaro, in a sense; he’s about to write the Prague Symphony. He’s in this time of incredible good fortune, and happiness in a way, and his writing, as a result, is just some of the richest and most assured of his career.

There’s such a magical feeling to be kind of immersed in a language and a style for such a long time. It’s so freeing.

Are you choosing those two pieces based on their qualities as musical works? Or are these two pieces close to your heart? Or, is it more, if we’re going to save two pieces of Mozart for the world, that this is what you’d like people to know existed once on this planet?

It’s so hard to divulge one’s feelings. Figaro was the first Mozart opera that I really got to know. I got to know it from a video disc of John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of the piece, and then became completely obsessed with it. It’s hard to maintain objectivity. You’re absolutely right. But, funnily enough, in reading the scholarly material about the piece, it’s very clear that the way people have responded to it … that there’s something kind of latently perfect about the piece that even the layperson can appreciate. [It’s] this startling way in which Mozart draws characters in that piece, especially the female characters. I think it’s something that people respond to, even if they’ve never seen a Mozart opera. So, in the case of Figaro, I will definitely say that I’ve known that piece for a long time, and it’s been a favorite of mine for ages but it’s hard for me not to admit some real subjectivity in choosing it.

In the case of the piano concerto, that’s a piece I never knew very well until, really, a few years ago. I’ve never actually played it. It’s a piece I’ve studied but I’ve not performed in public. It’s one of these pieces that you get to know more and more, and you just realize it’s sort of a hidden gem.

So, I guess, maybe with those two choices it’s both things: It’s both a piece of indisputable genius that everyone knows and loves for all the right reasons but that, when it’s scrutinized, it’s also clear that it is [a piece] of artistic quality that is given to the simplest person and the greatest scholar.

The [concerto K.] 503 is really a piece that deserves to be known better and truly is one of the greatest pieces of its time. It might take some people by surprise, given the choice of Mozart piano concertos that we have, and what someone might offer, but I feel really strongly about it. And I look forward to playing it sometime next year.

Journalist Molly Colin writes about the arts and cultural trends.