Rotterdam, 3 December 2010

Kristian Bezuidenhout is one of the most brillant artists on the fortepiano nowadays, he made himself a name with his refreshing interpretations of well known masterworks. However, an interview with this artist is as refreshing and inspiring. He showed the same passion and commitment..

Willem Boone (WB): What are you: a harpsichord player, a fortepianist, a pianist or all three at the same time?

Kristian Bezuidenhout (KB): I play all three instruments, although I don’t play the harpsichord and the Steinway much nowadays, 90 % of the time I am asked to play the fortepiano. I do only one or two concerts per year on the Steinway, I try to be careful about it. I have a modern piano at home, it is the first instrument I started on. It reminds me of various aspects of the fortepiano.

WB: In what way does playing on a Steinway gives you clues for interpretation on the fortepiano?

KB: It is very informative, especially in terms of colour and quality of sound. It is not easy to play beautifully on a five octave fortepiano. Playing on a Steinway gives you wonderful tools to strive to make a truly lovely sound on the fortepiano. Furthermore, a Steinway is more colourful than a fortepiano and its pedals have a dramatic effect on the sound. It’s very grounding.

WB: I very much enjoyed your first Mozart solo recording on Harmonia Mundi. The instrument was beautiful and it was very well recorded. However, I had a bit of a hard time when you played the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Isabelle Faust, Jean Guihen Queyras, the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Frans Brüggen in the Theater aan het IJ in Amsterdam last month. I thought there was a problem with the balance, I heard the violin and the cello, but I had trouble hearing you, whereas the hall wasn’t gigantic or overly reverberant. I was just wondering: why would you want to play on an instrument that can be hardly heard with an orchestra that has to hold back in order not to overpower you?

KB: You are right, it was frustrating that we used that instrument (a Lagrassa) in that particular hall. I played Mozart concertos in the same venue on three previous occasions and each time I was told that the balance was not good. It was tricky to play the Triple Concerto in this venue. We made a small tour with the orchestra and in the other four halls, there were no problems with the balance. It is thorny issue, but I take your point. Anyway, it was a great experience to work with such great soloists.

WB: Were you unhappy about the Amsterdam performance?

KB: No, when I saw the film on internet, it came across really well. And it was the first time in many years that Frans Brüggen conducted the Triple Concerto.

WB: Is the piano part difficult?

KB: It is indeed! It is challenging, especially since everyone thinks it is easy...
It is sometimes unpianistic and it is tricky to find the right balance between the two other soloists and the orchestra.

WB: I think your colleague, the Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam (who also performs on period instruments) has said that he could really let his hair down in Mozart on a fortepiano, whereas he felt limited on a Steinway grand. Isn’t that a strange paradox: to let yourself go on a relatively frail instrument, whereas you can do anything (or even more) on a Steinway in terms of dynamics?

KB: It is true what Ronald says. You feel liberated on a fortepiano and you can play with extremes in a less inhibited way! Mozart’s concertos in D and C-minor can sound grose and overdone on a Steinway, almost like Rachmaninov Concertos. On a period instrument, you can play forte and it doesn’t sound overdone, the instrument doesn’t swallow you up like a Steinway. Having said this, I had to get used to fortepianos in the beginning, because the keyboard was so tiny..

WB: You do compromize and you did play Mozart’s Concerto in E flat major K 482 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra last summer, didn’t you?

KB: Yes, that’s correct, but I would never do the D-minor concerto on a modern instrument, as I couldn’t express its tempestuousness. For the late concertos, it is different; it was wonderful to play with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. We took the lid off and the balance wasn’t an issue any more. The orchestra sounded flexible and transparent. The balance problems simply went away. Eventhough the concerto sounded gorgeous on a Steinway, I still feel that Mozart’s incredibly suave writing for winds and keyboards comes across better on the more human and idiosyncratic instruments of Mozart’s time.

WB:Still, the concerto in E flat major also sounds quite dramatic even if it is written in a major key, so why not do the D-minor concerto on a modern piano?

KB: It is more overly solistic, whereas in the E flat major you are more submerged by the orchestra. It struck me how well it worked on modern instruments...

WB: Was this performance recorded?

KB: Probably the concert in Wiesbaden was. Maybe there is also a video of the Luzern performance.

WB: You don’t like to listen to your own performances?

KB: Yes, I do listen to my own live recordings, but not always right after the concert...

WB: I have some questions about Mozart, are you going to record all of his solo works?

KB: Yes, that’s correct, there will be nine volumes with mixed programmes: sonatas, variations and miscellaneous pieces. I am leaving out a few things though, some transcriptions, otherwise there would have been more than 10 volumes.

WB: How do you consider Mozart’s output for piano solo as opposed to his Piano Concertos? The solo pieces are often considered as “minor pieces” or “study material”.

KB: Yes, his operas and Piano Concertos rank at the top, but still his keyboard writing for solo piano is among the best of his time. Especially the Variations are examples of virtuosic and sophisticated keyboard writing. One could say about the sonatas that they are “just” tuneful and melodically genious, but it is hard to find better keyboard writing in the 18th century. They are more intimiate than the Concertos, where Mozart is sometimes almost operatic and pulls out all the stops. He is at his most brillant in the Concertos, they are his number one calling card. You are right, people are quick to dismiss his piano sonatas.

WB: What would you consider as his best work for solo piano?

KB: It would be a tie between the C-minor Fantasy K 475 and the C-minor Sonata K 457. Or the A-minor Rondo K 511, where he ignores the natural tendancy of the Rondo. It is one of the only times he writes for solo piano in A-minor.

WB: I thought the Sonata K 310 was also composed in the same key?

KB: Right, that is another piece that was years ahead of its time!

WB: I agree that the C-minor Fantasy is an amazing work, it made me think: suppose Mozart would have lived longer, how do you think his style would have evolved: more towards a pre-Beethovenian way (One could say Mozart paved the way for Beethoven in the Fantasy) or more towards the lyricism of the last Piano Concerto in B-flat major, K 595?

KB: That is such a good question! Unlike Beethoven, Mozart played until the very end of his life. He was a virtuoso from the first until the last moment. Beethoven stopped playing in public after 1809 and his style changed a lot as of that moment. However, it is impossible to predict how Mozart’s style would have evolved if he hadn’t played until the end of his life. The differences would probably have been more radical. As to the C-minor Fantasy, I see it as an hommage to Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, where Mozart created a new world. He didn’t want to shock the world, whereas Beethoven deliberately created scandal and lost touch with reality. Mozart was driven by what people wanted, I see a deep pragmatism in everything he did or wrote.

WB: I was struck by the freedom of your Mozart playing. Is it “easy” in a way to play Mozart with freedom since there are obviously little indications in terms of dynamics or tempi in his scores?

KB: There are hardly any indications, but there is Mozart’s obsession with articulation. He is very specific about articulation, e.g two note slurs. There is this myth to look at the Urtext and play his music in a simple and refined way. It is considered as cheap and cheesy to play him in a dramatic way. I strive for a more personal and human approach to this repertoire.

WB: How do you manage to create freedom in a written text?

KB: I remember one of my teachers, Malcolm Bilson, spoke about operatic terminology in Mozart’s music. He sometimes introduces a new key unexpectedly, almost without warning, there are places where you can stretch and give it an “aha quality”. There is the music, the framework, and there are magical moments of departure. Sometimes it is funny when people tell me about things I have done, when you come to think of it, you indeed “did” certain things...

WB: Are you normally not aware of what you are doing while playing?

KB: You want to play notated music liked it sounds made up as in the C-minor Fantasy.

WB: Do you have total freedom with ornaments?

KB: Less and less. Mozart has an unmistakably sophisticated ornamental style, you wouldn’t confuse him with Beethoven. The ornaments should reflect the stylistic ornementation of the composer. And in this respect, I cannot think of someone who better understands the true characteristics of Mozart’s style than Robert Levin. I don’t do as much on the spur of the moment as I would have done some time ago. I want to make sure that people could think of me as a gifted contemporary of Mozart...

WB: Do you consider Mozart’s ornaments as harmonic or melodic variatons?

KB: I think his ornaments tend by large to a melodic style, 95 % I would say. There is a strong rythmic element in his ornementation and there is rich harmonic underpinning. He adds dissonants where he can, but it makes sense from a melodic standpoint.

WB: I often have the feeling whenever Mozart writes in a minor key, also for piano solo, e.g the D-minor and C-minor Fantasies, the A-minor Rondo, the B-minor Adagio, that something very special happens, maybe it would be exagerated to say that he transcends the instrument?

KB: Transcend is not an exageration at all, I totally agree with you, something gets unlocked in these compositions. They are cataclismic. As with Schubert, dramatic shifts between major and minor happen a lot.

WB: How would you rate Mozart’s Variations? Do they give the best impression of the virtuoso he was?

KB: From a pianistic standpoint: yes. Although his Concertos are unbelievably brillant, the Variations are just as brillant in technical display. There are technical aspects, e.g entire variations in broken octaves that are unusual in the Concertos or Sonatas. They give the most vivid glimpse in Mozart’s outrageous gifts as a keyboard player.

WB: I read that you said in an interview you would never play the C-minor Fantasy on a Steinway.

KB: I did, I listened to some great pianists on CD, it often feels as if they hold back. You almost hear the brainwork before they play the first note. You can’t play it with the abandon of a fortepiano on the Steinway. On a fortepiano you can play that same chord so loudly! In conservatoires you are told that the culture of Steinway playing is about beauty of tone, evenness, delicacy and nothing too extreme. They way the Steinway reaches to extreme emotions is that it sometimes goes over the top. It made us nervous to play Mozart in a dramatic way. On the other hand, I can’t think of many performances of his symphonies that were life changing.

WB: Is this evenness, delicacy and careful approach of Mozart not the biggest cliché that exists about his music?

KB: Yes, it is and there is another one: that his working process was always easy. He was an unbelievably crafted composer.

WB: Which modern pianists do you like in Mozart?

KB: I heard Leif Ove Andsnes play and conduct a few concertos and it was wonderful. One of them was the D-minor Concerto, it had energy, it was dramatic and not weird or over the top. I also remember Piotr Anderzevski who played Mozart really well. Other than that, I don’t listen much to piano recordings.

WB: Have you heard Wanda Landowska in the E-flat major Concerto? You’d probably find her interesting, since she was also (and mainly) a harpsichord player!

KB: Right, someone gave it to me, it’s very interesting!

WB: Where would you draw the line in terms of repertoire?

KB: That’s a very good question, it’s more than anything a technical issue. It would be great to play the Chopin Concertos on gut strings and with a 19th Century Pleyel, but I am not yet ready for it. I didn’t do a lot of romantic music, but mainly Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t learn the Brahms Concertos, it was way beyond my grasp, it would take me a few years if I want to do them now. I would love to play Brahms at some point.  It would be great to do Ravel, Debussy or Poulenc on a lovely Erard, but I like to take one step at a time!

WB: And now (tonight) you are doing Schumann with the British singer Mark Padmore?

KB: Yes, it was such a good idea to record and perform Dichterliebe! I play on an Erard from 1837, it is a beautiful instrument from the collection of Edwin Beunk. We’ll use the same one tonight. It sounds so great on record; it has a rich and velvety sound. And Dichterliebe is one of the most amazing cycles Schumann has written...

WB: You have been quite lucky in the choice of your partners, did they always come to you?

KB: Sometime they did, but Mark and I were put together by the violonist Daniel Hope. I approached the violonist Petra Mullejans and we recorded Mozart sonatas. Another great collaborator is the superb soprano Carolyn Sampson.

WB: Your duo with violonist Victoria Mullova is quite interesting!

KB: She is wonderful, both as a musician and as a person, very easy to work with.

WB: It’s amazing that she switched to play on period instruments!

KB: She was very quick to change, she just jumped in the deep end and took it all on board. The way she changed her style is very impressive. It suits her well!

WB: Are there plans that you will record Beethoven?

KB: Yes, there are, although they have not been 100% confirmed yet. I will probably record a disc with early Beethoven sonatas and pieces, but another thing I’d really like to do is the Concertos. I think they need to be done in a new way: led by the orchestra. It would be so different from what you normally hear: a big symphony orchestra with a big soloist. There was a proposal to record them with the Freiburger Barock Orchestra and I’d be delighted!

WB: Why are you so keen on doing them without a conductor?

KB: Although I have had wonderful experiences doing the Beethoven concertos with conductor, I think it's vital that there be a recording of these pieces that recreates the danger and volatility of Beethoven's own performances of this repertoire.  Namely, that the soloist is joined by a team of first-class instrumentalists who are led by a strong Konzertmeister.  This balance of power - in which the soloist and Konzertmeister co-direct the concerto - creates a feeling of 'maxi chamber music' which I think is essential for the drama and effect of these pieces.

WB: Isn’t it tricky to play them without conductor, especially the Emperor Concerto?

KB: I agree too that pieces like the Emperor concerto are tricky without a conductor, but I am convinced that with enough rehearsal time and with the right attitude of commitment and dedication from the orchestra, it is certainly possible.