Kristian Bezuidenhout, Sir John Eliot Gardiner / ORR
Brahms / Beethoven / Schubert

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-11-14

4-star rating

2016-11-27 — Original posting


Introduction

This is a concert that appeared in the Tonhalle schedule at pretty short notice—I almost missed it. But once I saw the announcement, I absolutely had to be there! Performances of Beethoven’s piano concertos on the fortepiano are absolutely rare, and Kristian Bezuidenhout is my top favorite artist on this instrument. I was fortunate already last summer, when I managed to attend a solo recital by this artist, in Cully/VD. So far, Bezuidenhout has been focusing on Mozart, of which he recorded all solo works on CD. He also recorded some of Mozart’s piano concertos, with the Freiburger Barockorchester (more recordings are in the making). But already in Cully he played a Beethoven piano sonata, and I’m eagerly waiting for these to appear on CD. This concert was particularly exciting to me because it opens up the scope towards the Beethoven concertos.

Actually, there is a growing number of artists playing works from the classic period on the fortepiano. However, the bulk of these performances are with solo works, not concertos. There are certainly reasons why this is such a rare event. For one, most concert halls today are simply too big for a typical fortepiano from the classic period (Walter of Graf models), especially if the instrument needs to compete with an orchestra. More on this below. Then, fortepianos are delicate instruments: they feature a purely wooden structure, hence are fragile in their structure. At the same time, they are also much more sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature—both of these will cause rapid detuning, hence requiring extra effort in keeping them in-tune.

Conductor & Orchestra

The other aspect which was special to me in this concert was that it was my first direct encounter with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (*1943) founded this orchestra in 1989, as a complement to his other orchestra, the English Baroque Soloists, founded in 1978. The ORR (see also Wikipedia for more information) obviously is the instrument for performing music of the classic and early romantic time, while the other ensemble is focusing on baroque music.


Brahms: Serenade No.2 in A major, op.16

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his Serenade No.2 in A major, op.16 in 1859 (one year after the Serenade No.1 in D major, op.11); it is dedicated to Clara Schumann and premiered in Hamburg the following year, 1860 (Brahms revised it in 1875). The composition features five movements:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Scherzo: Vivace – Trio
  3. Adagio non troppo
  4. Quasi menuetto – Trio
  5. Rondo: Allegro

In this serenade, Brahms keeps the string sound dark, “covered” by leaving out the violins entirely: there are 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, and 2 horns playing with viola, cello, and double basses.

The Performance

The unusual instrumentation was very obvious with the subset of ORR artists on stage. There were 5 double basses (4 women!), 7 cellos, 8 violas, and the 10 wind instrument players in the rear. Some listeners had the feeling of “too many cellos and double basses, not enough violins (!)”.

I. Allegro moderato (2/2)

As one could expect from the absence of the violins, the subset of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR) sounded wonderfully mellow and soothing. The characteristics of the performance and the music remained that of chamber music. At climaxes, Gardiner achieved volume through dynamics in playing, not through masses of instrumentalists. Gardiner selected a very moderate tempo—maybe just still about Allegro moderato in alla breve notation, but at the limit to an Andante. I think that this moderate pace was selected in favor of careful, light and transparent articulation, excellent phrasing, the forming of phrasing arches. the conductor avoided any harsh transitions or sudden tempo changes, keeping an eye on the musical flow.

II. Scherzo: Vivace – Trio (3/4)

While the opening movement was rather (too) moderate in the tempo, the Scherzo appeared rather fast, at the limits of what is doable (particularly on historic wind instruments). Still, the musicians managed to keep the articulation light, to retain a humorous character in the piece. There were even moments when the music appeared (almost) cradling, with light syncopes.

III. Adagio non troppo (12/8)

In this movement, Gardiner again selected a decidedly slow tempo—for me, too slow for an Adagio non troppo in 12/8 time. I suspect that he did this in favor of very careful articulation. This allowed leaving time for ornaments and for the blooming cantilenas in the wind instruments. Despite the slow pace, the music did not drift off into a somber atmosphere, thanks to the bright, vivid sound of the historic wind instruments, particularly clarinets and natural horns.

IV. Quasi menuetto – Trio (6/4)

A joyful, yet pensive movement, the Quasi menuetto part starting with an interesting rhythmic line in the clarinets, full of off-beat accents. This is followed by very nice, singing melody lines, particularly in the Trio part. Gardiner managed to keep the tension, never let the movement fall into comfortable coziness.

V. Rondo: Allegro (2/4)

Initially, the tempo seemed vivid, but natural—but later, the movement is full of rapid figures, which sometimes made the tempo appear on the fast side (Gardiner accelerated towards the end). However, the articulation remained light, the movement never turned loud, let alone boisterous. I enjoyed the virtuosic natural horn!


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58

A “Foreword”

Who hasn’t already gone though this: you follow an invitation to a concert, featuring a work that you have already listened to X times. This could be the fourth piano concerto by Beethoven. “Sure, I know that inside out: daaa-da-da-da-da-a-da-da-da-a…”. And indeed, there’s the expected experience in concert: minimal variations on music that thousands of pianists have played in the past. It’s also what is available in perfection with many, many dozens, if not hundreds of recordings on CD. Everything in the concert follows known, familiar paths. And as a listener one wonders, how and where a soloist can add personal aspects to the interpretation. Even the cadenza is the usual longer one of the two that the composer has written down. Soon, boredom creeps in, if not dizziness, one’s thoughts start wondering off, inadvertently, the eyelids start closing…

But one thing is for sure: the performance of Beethoven’s fourth concerto that evening could not be any farther from this scenario!

The Composition

I don’t need to introduce the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): I have already discussed a live performance of this concerto, part of a concert on 2016-08-31 at the Tonhalle in Zurich. Here are the movement in this concerto:

  1. Allegro moderato (4/4)
  2. Andante con moto (2/4)
  3. Rondo: Vivace (2/4)

The Performance

The prime, unusual aspect about this performance was the solo instrument. It’s not the usual “black monster”, but a brown (varnished) fortepiano. It was a replica after an instrument by Conrad Graf, Vienna (1824), made by Rodney Regier in 1989, thoroughly revised by Edwin Beunk & Johan Wennink in 2002 (Edwin Beunk Collection). In terms of length, the instrument almost matched that of a modern concert grand, but the instrument was clearly much lighter, more fragile.

The other unusual aspect about this performance was anticipated in the Brahms performance already: the ORR playing on period instruments. I assume the string instruments were using gut strings (played with Tourte bows, though—maybe early versions thereof). Certainly all woodwind instruments were period instruments or replicas. On a critical note, though: I don’t quite understand why Gardiner chose such a large orchestral apparatus, with 10 + 10 violins on top of the 8 + 7 + 5 string players that already appeared in the Brahms Serenade. This may appear a necessity for really big concert halls, but for the Tonhalle—even the bigger of the two halls—a much smaller orchestra would have been sufficient—and more adequate for the fortepiano played in this performance.

Confronting the Listener with the Fortepiano

Needless to say: the key interest in this concerto performance was on Kristian Bezuidenhout—and in this concerto, the soloist catches the listener’s attention already with the 5-bar solo that precedes the orchestral introduction. The looks and the unusual sound of the instrument were the least of the surprises / attractions of this evening. Already the first chord made me feel like being in a different universe: Bezuidenhout started with an arpeggio, and also the sforzando in bar 3 was played as arpeggio. Clearly, this was not the artist’s fad, nor the inspiration of the moment, but very consciously placed articulation.

In the course of the movement it becomes very clear that Bezuidenhout hasn’t just studied the score very carefully, but also its realization on the fortepiano. That instrument features much, much simpler mechanics than the “Renner” action used by all modern grand pianos. The early type of mechanical action has the advantage of much more lightness, agility and speed—but it also has its quirks. For example, it is much harder to play absolutely synchronous chords. In retrospect (compared to modern instruments), one could call this a deficiency. However, Bezuidenhout appears to take this as a challenge, as motivation to look for playing solutions that are suited for the instruments that Beethoven played and was familiar with.

I. Allegro moderato

Often in this movement, we encounter variants and extra ornaments, and of course there are occasional, additional arpeggios. Given the agility of the instrument, the artist has no problem shaping, carefully articulating scales, runs, ornaments and phrases in all detail, despite a relatively fast / fluent tempo. His playing features unusually rich agogics and dynamics, he uses the al fresco effect of the sustain pedal (as annotated by the composer, of course). He focuses on drama and expression rather than elegance. And he pays no undue respect to conventions of conventional / traditional performances from the past century. Nothing is casual, secondary or superficial.

Bezuidenhout selected the “usual” first, longer of Beethoven’s two cadenzas. But he played it with variations, enriched, more “talking”, and unexpected in the best sense of the word. At Beethoven’s time, cadenzas could just as well be improvised. Therefore, it is definitely acceptable to take Beethoven’s two proposals “with a grain of salt”, or as a basis for a more personalized cadenza.

II. Andante con moto

The slow movement further expands the listener’s experience. There’s this huge contrast between the consciously extreme, harsh, over-punctuated, loud orchestral interjections, and the extremely soft, mellow, begging recitatives of the soloist. Bezuidenhout is avoiding all harsh chords, again uses the arpeggio for forming accents. And of course, the follows the una corda (shift pedal) instruction in the score, possibly even adding the “pianissimo moderator” (a pedal that pulls a piece of cloth between the hammers and the strings to soften the sound). In a huge contrast to the modern grand (where the “soft” pedal has very limited effect on the sound quality), gradually releasing the shift pedal (una corda .. tre corde) feels almost like a revelation, an awakening: the effect on the sound quality and the volume is extreme, stunning.

III. Rondo: Vivace

Once more, we could experience Bezuidenhout’s extreme agility on the fortepiano; his playing was extremely flexible in ornaments, scales and runs.

As stated before, it is unclear to me why Gardiner used such a large orchestra—the room / venue does not require this. He did carefully keep the volume under control, though, largely managed to avoid covering the solo instrument. However, in the fast movements, the orchestra reached its limits in following Bezuidenhout’s vivid, “talking” agogics. Or—was the tempo in the fast movements simply a little too high for an orchestra of that size? Overall, I had the impression that the soloist and the orchestral accompaniment still require more time and common experience for the performance to “grow together”. It would be interesting to witness a performance at the end of this season (Gardiner and Bezuidenhout are touring with this program throughout this season).


Encore — Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, op.10/3, II. Largo e mesto

The venue was full, the applause strong and lasting. Kristian Bezuidenhout decided to play an encore—and he selected more Beethoven! It was a special delicacy: the second movement, Largo e mesto (broad and sad), from the Piano Sonata No.7 in D major, op.10/3. That’s a dramatic piece, full of sad emotions, sometimes building up to internal turmoil and rebellion, with a few, short windows into a different, lucid world.

In Bezuidenhout’s hands, and with this colorful instrument, it didn’t really sound like a typical Beethoven: I heard it rather like a piece of the “Sturm und Drang”, reminding me of pieces by late “pre-classic” composers, such as Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760 – 1812), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788), or maybe Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832)? Fascinating, puzzling, impressive, yet irritating, almost devastating music—with a deep effect on the audience, as indicated by the long silence before the applause set in again!


Schubert: Symphony No.5 in B♭ major, D.485

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his Symphony No.5 in B♭ major, D.485, in 1816, at the age of 19. People have claimed that this symphony resembles Mozart’s in style. It is certainly a work of the classic period, but to me, it undeniably also bears Schubert’s typical handwriting. The composition comes in the classic four movements:

  1. Allegro (2/2)
  2. Andante con moto (6/8)
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
  4. Allegro vivace (2/4)

For this part of the concert, Gardiner had his musicians (with the obvious exceptions) standing. This certainly increased every musician’s alertness and attention, made for a more vivid, “living” performance. However, this also tends to have an impact on the precision, especially with that many (40) string players. Was the orchestra too big? In my personal opinion, playing standing would have been just fine, even desirable for smaller ensembles. However, with an ensemble of this size, I felt that the overall effect was not to the advantage of Schubert’s symphony. This was aggravated by Gardiner’s challenging tempo selections in the fast movements.

The Performance

I. Allegro (2/2)

In keeping with the alla breve notation, Gardiner selected a very fast tempo. I liked the tempo it was agile, vivid, loose, talking, if not swinging freely. It was not pushed, overall, but Gardiner certainly did not allow his musicians to linger relishingly at climaxes. And the (lack of) precision in the strings (especially in some ornaments and quaver passages) indicated that the tempo was a challenge to a standing ensemble of that size.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

In the Andante con moto, movement, Gardiner’s tempo was decidedly slow. He must have done this in favor of very carefully and nicely articulated demisemiquaver figures. These were very light, occasionally (but not always) slightly inégal, never mechanical. Was this maybe even too romantic? Certainly, in line with the size of the orchestra, one can’t claim that this was bloodless, dry playing. The movement gave the listener time to enjoy the sound of the period instruments, the detailed articulation. One of the most beautiful moments was the very softly articulated horn passage in the final bars.

III. Menuetto: Allegro molto — Trio (3/4)

The Menuetto: firm, earnest, serious, but neither a tragedy, nor playful lightness, with distinct, heavy accents. The Trio intervened with its somewhat restrained, cautious sentiment of joy and happiness.

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

The final movement—unnecessarily exaggerated in the tempo. To me, it was too fast for an orchestra of that size, playing while standing. It reached the limits of coordination and precision. Yes, it was virtuosic, sometimes almost explosive, dedusted—but sometimes also pushed, driven, even slightly superficial in some semiquaver figures. But the “noisy” natural horn fanfares / interjections were fun!


Conclusion

To summarize: the Beethoven in this concert was a revelation, albeit not perfect (yet). However, the orchestral aspects (size, tempo selection, etc.) were partly controversial.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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