Kristian Bezuidenhout / Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO)
J.C. Bach / C.P.E. Bach / W.A. Mozart
Kirche St.Peter, Zurich, 2018-03-07
One of the nice venues for small orchestras and chamber music is the St.Peter Church in the medieval part of Zurich. I have previously encountered the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO, see Wikipedia for additional information) in this venue back in 2016-03-15. That church seems the ideal venue for chamber music and small orchestras.
The ZKO presented a program with two symphonies and two concertos for keyboard instrument and orchestra. These works are compositions from the years between 1746 – 1777. Even though that time span is a mere 31 years, the works exhibit an amazing span in style, form and texture, from late baroque to early classics, all a matter of one single generation of composers. If there was anybody was to claim that the musical evolution in the 20th century was incredibly fast: think twice!
Conductor & Soloist
This time, the soloist was Kristian Bezuidenhout (*1979, see again Wikipedia for more information), my favorite fortepiano player. Bezuidenhout was not just soloist, but also conducted the orchestra which had grouped itself standing in a semi-circle around the fortepiano (more on the instrument below).
In the symphonies and in orchestral parts of the concerti, Bezuidenhout changed casually between unceremonious conducting and continuo (ciphered bass) playing. The latter served as harmonic filler, and also as discreet rhythmic foundation. In this function, the fortepiano remained inconspicuous: in the symphonies, Bezuidenhout kept the lid half-closed, and he sure played softly and used the shift pedal, as well as the moderator pedal(s), as appropriate. On top of that, the fortepiano does not stand out from the string sound nearly as much as a harpsichord. Mostly just in soft passages, one could individual chords, arpeggi, and occasionally transitional fioriture—all very subtle and discreet (my seat was in the center of the nave).
In the concerti, the conducting was of course limited to the orchestral / continuo segments. This “marginal, casual conducting” only worked because the ensemble was (adequately) limited in size (around 18 string players). More importantly, though, the concertmaster, Willi Zimmermann, kept a very active lead role, throughout the concert, and he again could count on the attentive, engaged cooperation of every single instrumentalist: it felt like the “ZKO family”, indeed.
Kristian Bezuidenhout was playing on a the replica of a Viennese fortepiano by Jakob Bertsche, built in 2009 by Robert A Brown, Oberndorf (near Salzburg). According to the builder, the original instrument (which Brown restored, and which is now in a private collection in Paris) dates from around 1815.
Where in the development of fortepianos does the instrument stand? Certainly, this model goes far beyond what the instruments during Mozart’s time were offering. It is bigger, has a larger tonal / keyboard range, and vastly more possibilities to modulate, vary the sound. Still, it is a fortepiano (as opposed to a modern grand piano), i.e., it is built entirely from wood, the strings are simple wires, not wound, the keyboard mechanics are vastly more agile, lighter, with the small hammer heads covered with leather (rather than felt).
For the Curious: What Does it Do?
According to its builder, the instrument offers 6 octaves (FF – f4), more than what Mozart could use (around 5 octaves). The early instruments (such as those that Mozart knew) offered damper control, and typically a so-called moderator, later also a keyboard shift (una corda). Here now, a prominent feature of the Bertsche instrument are its six (!) pedals, from left to right:
- bassoon stop (a piece of silk of parchment over the bass strings creates a buzzing sound)
- keyboard shift (una corda, piano, for a softer sound)
- moderator (a piece of cloth or felt between the hammers and the strings darkens and softens the sound)
- double moderator
- damper control (sustain pedal)
- Janissary pedal (used to create cymbal-like sounds, as often encountered in Turkish military bands).
Mozart, let alone C.P.E. Bach, almost certainly was not familiar with the bassoon and Janissary stops. Consequently in this concert, these two pedals (the outer two) were not even hooked up.
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J.C. Bach: Symphony in G major, op.3/6
Johann Christian Bach (1735 – 1782), the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), composed over 30 symphonies. This is part of a large oeuvre ranging from keyboard works to chamber music, to concertos, to oratorios, operas and other vocal works. The Symphony in G major, op.3/6 (“W C6” in Ernest Warburton’s “Collected Works of Johann Christian Bach”) probably dates from around 1760. It features three movements:
- Allegro assai
- Allegro assai
One can probably count this symphony among J.C. Bach’s early to middle period. It is still composed entirely in late baroque / rococo style and musical language. The movements are short, there is little, if any thematic development. The instrumentation includes two oboes and two horns. The musicians played baroque oboes and natural horns (cor d’orchestre, see my earlier post for information of different types of natural horns and references to additional information).
Right from the beginning of the concert I noted that the acoustics of the venue provided optimal support for orchestra (strings and wind instruments) and continuo: clarity and sound balance were excellent! The one disadvantage of this venue is that most of the orchestra played at the level of the audience in the nave, hence the visibility was very limited (except for people in the front rows, of course).
I. Allegro assai
A vivid, lively movement, light in the articulation, fresh in the tempo, with excellent, but not overly poignant articulation. This already made it clear: we were up for a very interesting, fascinating concert experience! The one quibble I had here was, that the horns were rather inconspicuous: maybe they should have occupied more prominent positions on the podium? They were mostly playing long, resting notes, though. On the other hand, their marginal function within the orchestral sound in this movement helped covering the initial, few mishaps—with were to be expected with natural horns: these instruments are notoriously hard to manage, tricky to play cleanly. But these mishaps were singular incidents in the entire concert: nothing to complain about the orchestral performance otherwise.
A lyrical, somewhat melancholic movement, just for strings and continuo, at a natural, stepping pace, carried by the melody in the violins, with very careful, differentiated dynamics.
III. Allegro assai
This movement is gripping, with virtuosic runs in the high strings (up to sautillé playing). The performance was enthralling, fascinating! The main theme reminds of the hunting calls, especially with the horns: I wished these had been given more presence! Alternatively, fewer string instruments (I estimated 6 + 4 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double bass) might have given a better / more adequate instrumental balance?
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788) wrote his Concerto in C major for Fortepiano and Strings, Wq.20 in 1746—some 15 years before the above symphony by brother Johann Christian, 21 years his junior, saw the light of the day. The concerto has three movements, following the traditional scheme fast-slow-fast:
- Adagio ma non troppo
- Allegro assai
Even though it’s half a generation older than the above symphony (and Johann Sebastian Bach still lived for another 4 years!), it took only a few bars, a few, typical harmonic alterations in the orchestral introduction, to make Carl Philipp Emanuel’s handwriting recognizable. That introduction was light-footed—and light-hearted, and throughout the movement, the orchestra remained very differentiated in dynamics and articulation. The solo entered with much more sensitiveness—or was this just the delicate, subtle sound of the instrument?
In any case, that impression soon changed, when the solo part turned more virtuosic, and semiquaver triplets tended to keep the pianist’s right hand busy most of the time. In their density, these rapid figures barely permitted differentiating the solo part by applying agogics. Still, from looking at the orchestral part, the tempo seemed perfectly adequate.
The solo seemed focused on displaying virtuosity—in terms of expression, dynamic and thematic differentiation, the genre of concerto for keyboard instruments had yet a long way to go! Despite the density of his part, Kristian Bezuidenhout managed to insert fioriture and ornaments in suitable moments. He even was able to differentiate dynamically, exploiting the agility of the instrument: a modern concert grand can’t possibly yield an adequate performance of this music, might even look clumsy (at least in comparison).
II. Adagio ma non troppo
From the point-of-view of composition, the slow movement proved to be more interesting, both harmonically and in the interplay between orchestra and solo, and in the interplay between their specific musical characters. It also seemed more inventive in the solo part, not at the least thanks to Bezuidenhout’s imaginative extra ornamentation. Naturally, the pianist used the moderator to make the fortepiano sound softer, darker, more mellow: wonderful, and again something pianists can only dream of on a modern instrument!
III. Allegro assai
A very effective movement! it is again light-footed and very virtuosic, even enthralling, the stroke of a genius. The orchestral performance was really excellent, active, “forward-leaning”, but never rushed. The same of course holds true for the solo part; the only minor quibble: the rumbling basses in the pianist’s left hand weren’t nearly as effective as they could have been with a smaller orchestra.
Here, of course, Kristian Bezuidenhout had the lid of the fortepiano fully open. The fortepiano naturally assumed a much more prominent position. Still, though, a slightly smaller string orchestra might have provided an even better solo-to-orchestra balance. It also would have revealed more detail in the rich set of colors in the solo part.
C.P.E. Bach: Symphony in F major, Wq.183/3
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788) was a prolific composer. Besides a huge number of keyboard works, chamber music, instrumental concertos and vocal works, he composed around 20 symphonies. Among these symphonies, he only published the last four, collected / known under Wq.183. These are set “for 12 obbligato voices”, while the earlier ones were much simpler, four-part string symphonies. The symphonies Wq.183 date from 1776: they are late works, among the most mature by this composer.
The Symphony in F major, Wq.183/3 encompasses parts for 2 horns (natural horns), two (baroque) oboes, two flutes (here wooden flauto traverso, of course), 2 violin voices, viola, cello, bassoon, and a ciphered bass voice (basso continuo), labeled “harpsichord and violone”. There are again three movements:
- Allegro do molto
I. Allegro do molto
With this symphony, we clearly found ourselves in the period of Sturm und Drang (“storm and drive”, “storm and urge”, “storm and stress”). This is the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach that people know and like: enthralling, gripping music! The first movement is full of “Mannheim Rockets”, a then popular figure, consisting of a (long) ascending sequence, typically linked with a dramatic crescendo. Again typical for this composer, this movement also features motoric segments, interspersed with sudden changes in harmony and atmosphere: simple excellent entertainment! The movement ends in an almost shocking contrast, an Adagio transition, which leads into the Larghetto:
The Larghetto is in D minor—a retained, earnest movement that begins with a dialog between the viola and cello voices. When the other voices join in, the bass line is without keyboard instrument (senza Cembalo), except for the last two bars, where Bezuidenhout played a simple arpeggio. With its punctuated rhythm, coordination in this movement is more demanding than it may seem—and also here, the role of the concertmaster was instrumental.
The symphony ends in a light-footed, very virtuosic Presto—another stroke of a genius! Too bad the musicians did not repeat the second part, to extend this movement beyond its mere, surprisingly short two minutes!
Among the 27 piano concertos that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed, the Concerto No.9 in E♭ major, K.271, is first one that has become widely popular. An indication for this is in the fact that it is the first one known under a surname, “Jeunehomme“. Though, that name turned out to be a misnomer. In 1777, Mozart composed this work for a gifted pupil, Victoire Jenamy, and someone mis-read the name of the dedicatee. The proper name for the concerto (it needs one) would be “Jenamy“. Like all of Mozart’s piano concertos, K.271 formally features three movements:
- Rondo: Presto — Menuetto: Cantabile — Presto
This concerto is special, somewhat unique in the sense that its last movement includes a contrasting Menuetto segment.
One certainly cannot call C.P.E. Bach’s concerto ineffective: it’s a very good, fascinating concerto—in its time and kind. However, with Mozart’s K.271, it’s like taking a different ruler, using a different scale. Suddenly, the instrumental proportions are “right”, the form of the composition makes sense: the solo instrument gets the role it deserves (as do the horns!), the instrumental and acoustic balance is there.
In addition, the fortepiano gives the soloist a chance to demonstrate the lightness, the richness of colors that the composer had in mind (based on the instruments available at that time). Also, with this instrument, the continuo function of the keyboard instrument suddenly makes sense, seems natural, logical. With modern instruments, artists mostly neglect, often even completely ignore that aspect altogether.
Despite a very fluent tempo, Kristian Bezuidenhout shapes his part with vivid dynamics, detailed articulation, and rich agogics. He even manages to insert additional ornaments, as he sees fit. And all these ornaments are (expectedly) very tasteful and feel natural.
Bezuidenhout selected Mozart’s own cadenza for this movement: naturally, the ideal fit, and most adapted to the fortepiano. The cadenza ends in a descending sequence and the subsequent ascending scale. Prior to that, Mozart gives the impression of being lost, not knowing how to proceed, repeating the same motif three times. It was unparalleled how the artist momentarily let the time stand still at this point!
On top of the strings playing con sordino, the pianist (naturally) used the moderator. With this the melancholic Andantino in C minor sounded unusually dark. However, this didn’t stop the musicians from using “living” dynamics and careful, detailed agogics. Even with the moderator, the fortepiano appeared marvelously melodic, rich in dynamic shades. As the movement progressed, Bezuidenhout gradually applied more freedom by adding more ornaments, small variations to the notation. None of this was detrimental to the music—quite to the contrary! The cadenza was again Mozart’s own—con alcune licenze (with some freedom), so to say—rightly so!
At the end of this movement, I noted a very slight degradation in the fortepiano tuning. This didn’t really hurt, but is to be expected with an instrument that is built entirely from wood.
III. Rondo: Presto
The Rondo followed attacca. The tempo annotation is Presto, and consequently, Bezuidenhout selected a tempo that was very fast, challenging—at the limit of what is on the fortepiano, and slightly above the limit of what the orchestra could do (some figures started to sound superficial). But once more, this demonstrated the agility and speed of the fortepiano mechanics: Mozart knew exactly where the limits of the instrument are!
The dynamics, the contrasts were sparkling—a typical Mozart finale! At bar 149, there is a first cadenza—the pianist decided not to play Mozart’s lengthy version, but rather a shorter one, which wasn’t tied to the rest of the solo part as much as Mozart’s text. It was a good decision, as the Rondo theme appears often enough.
Menuetto & second Presto
The first Presto ends in another, short cadenza (Mozart’s own in this case), consisting of a descending sequence and an ascending, broken dominant seventh chord. At this point, Bezuidenhout waited for a lovely little eternity, suspending time for a moment, before he set in with the Menuetto part: fabulously done, and an excellent transition—I was holding my breath!
In the Menuetto, the strings play mostly pizzicato—and once more, this shed new light onto the balance between solo and accompaniment! At the transition to the second Presto, there is another cadenza. In addition to the original one, a later version by Mozart is available under K.614; Bezuidenhout played an abbreviated, altered version of that latter version.
The second Presto does not have a cadenza: after a long trill, the soloist just plays another instance of the Rondo theme, prior to the final Coda. To my pleasant surprise, Kristian Bezuidenhout activated the moderator, just for that last solo—a brilliant idea: this makes the Coda sound more affirmative and conclusive!
Simply stated: both the composition and the interpretation in the solo part were simply masterful!
Kristian Bezuidenhout played a 3-minute encore—a calm, pensive piece in C minor that I have not been able to identify. In its second part, the artist again used the moderator very effectively, to darken the sound. I suspected Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach as composer. This implies one of a myriad of keyboard compositions—I should have asked the artist…
With the very minor limitations mentioned above, the performance of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO) was impeccable, inspiring, at least close to top-class. Kristian Bezuidenhout’s performance could not have been any better—he is among today’s very top-level masters on this instrument. The audience was enthused throughout the concert,, and the warm acoustics of the St.Peter Church, the both festive and cosy atmosphere of this baroque venue contributed to the success of the evening.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created 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.