Friday, July 15, 2016

Kristian Bezuidenhout Completes his Cycle of Mozart’s Keyboard Music

I am a bit embarrassed to confess that it took me about half a year to get around to listening to harmonia mundi’s final release in fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout’s project to record all of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s compositions for solo keyboard. All I can say is that this turned out to be a particularly busy concert season in San Francisco, and summer is finally providing time for me to shift my listening attention to many recordings that have been waiting patiently for my attention. Bezuidenhout himself was a bit more fortunate, since I was able to attend his appearance with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra this past February, when he performed Mozart’s K. 488 concerto in A major.

It might be appropriate to call Bezuidenhout a “second-generation” member of the current movement dedicated to historically-informed performances on period instruments. His fortepiano education owes much to “first-generation” keyboardist Malcolm Bilson, a leading figure, along with Robert Levin and Paul Badura-Skoda, in reviving interest in the fortepiano through both performances and recordings. As one who avidly collected Bilson’s recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos, I have to confess that watching Bezuidenhout in action in February made me feel my age; but it also comforted me that interest in a historical perspective was more than a passing trend.

The first release in his own Mozart project for harmonia mundi came out in March of 2010. The final release consisted of two CDs. This made for a total of nine, most of which were released singly except for two double albums, the earlier being the fifth and sixth volumes. I must confess that I have no clue as to how the repertoire was apportioned across these nine discs; and I fear that the listener looking for a specific composition, particularly one of the shorter ones, will be forced to review the full set booklet by booklet. If harmonia mundi has any plans for releasing the complete set as a single package, I hope they will consider the possibility of providing an index, one of whose sections includes ordering according to the numbers in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog!

There are a variety of ways in which these pieces may be grouped into categories. My own thinking has been influenced by G. Henle Verlag’s Urtext publications. There is one volume for the sonatas, one for the variations, and a “catch-all” volume simply entitled Klavierstücke. Bezuidenhout’s strategy seems to have been to provide material from each of these categories in each of his releases, meaning than any single CD offers the listener with three different perspectives of how Mozart composed for the keyboard. This tends to be preferable to organizing by category, since a CD occupied only with a single category tends to be a bit much, no matter how much variety one may encounter in Mozart’s approaches to any genre.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that the two CDs in this final release never quite get my juices flowing. However, this has less to do with Bezuidenhout’s technical and expressive skills and more to do with my own dirty little secret, which is that, in spite of my own far-less adequate skills, I find that I take far more pleasure in trying to play this music than in listening to others play it, particularly on recordings. The in-the-moment experience of listening to a recital will always have virtues of its own; and I suspect that Mozart fully appreciated those virtues. One can imagine any number of settings in which he would have played these pieces himself. Most likely his personal priority would have been playing them for others, but this probably involved audiences covering a wide range of sizes. On the other hand he may have played some of those pieces for his own personal pleasure. Unfortunately, those subjective and social dimensions of making music are abstracted away by both the technologies and processes of making recordings; and the resulting situation is as alien to contemporary listening practices as it would be to the ghost of Mozart were he to pay us a visit in the present day.

Thus, the completed result of Bezuidenhout’s project may best be considered as a document. One might call that document an “auditory realization” of Urtext publications; and such a document is likely to be valuable to both scholars and “lay listeners.” For the latter, however, its primary value will probably be to establish familiarity with a particular composition by way of preparing to listen to that piece in a recital setting.

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