A few years after a complete recording of Mozart’s solo piano works that has gradually come to be regarded as a benchmark, Kristian Bezuidenhout has taken all the time he needed to tackle Haydn, the other towering figure of the Viennese Classical keyboard repertory.
‘Preparing for this recording has been a vivid reminder that it is remarkably difficult to play Haydn’s music well, but that with enough care, and attention to detail, his music has the potential to come jumping from the page. It would be hubris to suggest that I am even close to unlocking any of its secrets, but I am so humbled by the sheer beauty, humanity, wit and delightful irony of this music, that the desire to continue is irresistible.’
The man at the keyboard, or how to solve a collector’s headache.
Kristian Bezuidenhout – Fortepiano
Total time: 01:08:15
|Original Recording Format|
Doopsgezinde kerk, a historic hidden Mennonite church dating from the 17th century between the Grote Houtstraat, Peuzelaarsteeg and the Frankestraat in Haarlem, Netherlands in September 2017.
|Recording Type & Bit Rate||
|Release Date||February 1, 2019|
The revival of the 18th-century Fortepiano has received a boost from the exceptional skill of keyboard player Kristian Bezuidenhout who has been recording Mozart and now turns to Haydn.
This is an undersold album, called Piano Sonatas (Harmonia Mundi). It also is distinguished by two superb variation sets, with the intense Variations in F minor as the climax. Here, extra elaboration seems a little intrusive, so perfect is Haydn’s writing, but Bezuidenhout’s building of the powerfully dissonant climax is masterly.
The sonatas flourish with the crisp sound of the piano, a copy of an 1805 Walter, and the argument of the C minor sonata is compelling.
The Sunday Times
Album of the Week
The period sound of the fortepiano may not be to all tastes, but the instrument’s brilliance in the allegro and presto movements of the sonatas is difficult to resist.
There’s a strange feeling of something like alienation or distance at the outset of Kristian Bezuidenhout’s Haydn recital. It’s because he opens with the uneasy sound world of the C minor Sonata (No 20) rather than one of the composer’s more upbeat keyboard pieces. The sensation is only fleeting, however, and soon the listener is drawn in by the myriad subtleties of Bezuidenhout’s playing and by the glorious sounds he draws from his instrument – by the doyen of historical instrument makers, Paul McNulty, based on an Anton Walter (Vienna) from the end of Haydn’s life. Soon you’re hanging on every note of this sequence that seems to travel from darkness to darkness, closing with the F minor Variations – the Piccolo divertimento that is anything but piccolo.
The rarefied opening of the C minor Sonata seems to be not of this world until the texture thickens and the full range of the instrument is revealed. The bass especially, although used sparely in this music, has both clarity and ‘grunt’, able to punctuate when required but never becoming muddy in left-hand chords. Quiet playing draws a gentle veil over the sound, while the damper pedal extends the repertoire of soft tones available – and never becomes an effect for its own sake when used as judiciously as here.
Most important, though, is Bezuidenhout’s playing itself. Technique is obviously not an issue: arpeggios spray notes like Eszterháza fountains; Haydn’s triplet accompaniments are never simply ‘typed’ but come alive with gradations of pressure that always seem instinctive rather than simply applied. Decoration, too, is sparing rather than troweled on. This is the very opposite of ‘look-at me’ pianism.
There is the merest hint of action noise and the pianist’s breathing is faintly audible (most noticeably on headphones). But why not? The fortepiano is an instrument with inherent limitations, within which Haydn and his players had to work, and this is living and breathing music. You’re left in no doubt of that by the end of this compelling, tantalizing recital. A mesmerizing guide to the composer’s keyboard world.
BBC Music Magazine
Kristian Bezuidenhout saw the invitation to record this album as a chance to confront his prejudiced view of Haydn as inferior to Mozart. Some listeners may regard it as a chance to confront their prejudices against the fortepiano. Those listeners may relax. The instrument which this South African player has chosen is an unusually fine example, with a singing warmth of tone.
The repertoire is well-chosen: Haydn’s late C minor Sonata contrasting with a very early one in C major; the G major Partita which is a sonata in all but name; the intriguing little set of variations on the string quartet Adagio whose theme became the German national anthem; and the great F minor variations. Bezuidenhout says his aim has been to ‘blur the distinction between improvisation, composition, and the act of performance’ – to create an impression of freshness and immediacy – and he does this supremely well. He imbues the opening Allegro of the C minor Sonata with a grandeur tinged with pathos, and he gives the contrasts of its Andante – in which a walking bassline is offset by an ornamented melody – a lovely grace; his use of rubato is dramatic without being obtrusive, and he brings to the finale a triumphal richness of texture.
If the seldom-performed Partita is interesting without being a top-drawer work, the early C major Sonata, in which Haydn was experimenting with the sonorities of the newly invented fortepiano, has an exhilarating boldness as Bezuidenhout plays it. The F minor variations are delivered with serene authority, winding to an enigmatic, thrilling, and majestic close.
The Classic Review
After the completion of his impressive complete survey of Mozart piano music, Kristian Bezuidenhout turns his attention to Haydn. No word yet if this is going to be a new cycle but judging from this album listeners will eagerly await new volumes. He plays the same instrument and with the same acoustic and recording quality as before (a copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano), but there is where the similarity ends. Never has the musical character’s differentiation between the two composers been so clearly exemplified as here.
Bezuidenhout’s Haydn is a journey of discovery, traveling through the old master’s imaginative control over form, with superb control of touch and color, putting to rest the claim that Haydn was merely an adequate pianist.
Most of the repertoire compiled in this release has been recorded by period instrumentalists such as Ronald Brautigam and Andreas Staier. The comparison is fascinating. In the C Minor Sonata which opens the album, Bezuidenhout is retrospect, with meaningful rests and exciting ornamentations added in the repeats (he observes most). Brautigam is similar in approach to rhythm and phrasing, but less free in tempo fluctuation and virtually avoids any addition to the original text. Staier is the most direct, matter-of-fact performer of this sonata, with his pianoforte’s timbre slightly thinner, which suits the interpretation. Bezuidenhout is not shy of using his instrument’s voicing capabilities provided by its pedals, and the slow movement enjoys a multicolored treatment, not available with the other two performers.
The early partita in G, Hob. XVI:6 is enthusiastically played, especially in the outer movement. But in the lovely Adagio Brautigam has the edge, with a calmer, flowing version (Bezuidenhout soft pedal here may be a bit too much). Nothing wrong with the other 3 movements though, with the intricate finger works coming through clearly with playful glee.
The C Major Sonata (Hob. XVI:48), a masterpiece of the late period, receives a remarkable performance here, certainly one of the most persuasive ever made on a period instrument. It again shows what an advantage a good performance on a fortepiano can bring to a well-known sonata – sounding completely free and now, moving along with ornamentations that sound made up on the spot, keeping the listener alert even in the poignant, slow transitions of the first movement.
The album includes two sets of theme and variations, with the more meaningful being the famous F Minor double variations (Hob. XVII:6), one of the composer’s final contributions to the instrument. It’s a wonderful rendition, full of wisdom, sense of form, dark sadness, and suspenseful progression to the culminating coda (12:15 onward). Brautigam and Staier both had a great performance of this piece, but not as good as this.
This can be easily recommended to any Haydn enthusiasts, even those who already own one of the versions mentioned. It’s also a great accompaniment to superb modern instruments version of this repertoire, namely the immaculate Brendel and the ever-creative Schiff.
The Mozart Sonata recordings of South African-born fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout gained rightful acclaim. But anyone expecting this album of Haydn keyboard works, played on a replica of a 1790s Walter instrument, to be more of the same is in for a big shock.
Bezuidenhout thinks of the relation between piano sonatas and more general oeuvres differently for Haydn than he does for Mozart, and with Haydn he emphasizes the composer’s progressive side. This progressive side emerged full-blown at the end of Haydn’s career in a series of piano works that mightily influenced Beethoven (and that Beethoven certainly had the chance to hear as Haydn’s student), but it was always there in Haydn’s music.
Bezuidenhout talks about the difficulty of playing Haydn, which may come as a surprise to listeners who think of his piano music as relatively simple technically. But his comment gives you an idea about Bezuidenhout’s playing. It is free in tempo, dramatic, and, in Bezuidenhout’s hands, downright virtuosic because there’s so much going on. Often the effect is thrilling.
Sample the final Variations in F minor, Hob. 17/6, where Bezuidenhout finds all kinds of hidden tension in the music. In the Partita (Divertimento) in G major, Hob. 16/6, really a sonata despite its name, the energy Bezuidenhout applies may seem a bit much.
This work was written around 1760, and this is by no means a historically accurate performance. Still and all, it’s never dull.
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