James, on Mozart…
I have chosen to speak praise about the multi-volume Keyboard Music of Mozart, as performed by South-African Australian keyboard virtuoso Kristian Bezuidenhout (b.1979), the first seven volumes of which have been released on the Harmonia Mundi label (more to come!). A player of both modern and historic keyboard instruments, Bezuidenhout has a stellar career, which went into turbo charge when he won the Bruges International Fortepiano Competition at the age of just 21. Here he has decided to pursue what I believe to be his strongest musical talent, the galante style, and the complete solo keyboard works of W.A. Mozart.
No doubt Bezuidenhout will agree with me when I speak of the importance of a master keyboardist’s having a good understanding of how Mozart himself was known to have played the piano, in order to inform his or her own artistic choices. Beethoven described it as ‘delicate but choppy’ (the 17 year old Beethoven had approached the piano of the time from a background of organ playing, and was used to a smoother keyboard touch than Mozart, who had grown up with the harpsichord).
The Irish tenor and billiards contender of Mozart, Michael Kelly, observes in a concert in Vienna in 1781 the astounding ‘execution and strength of his left hand’. This is critical information, as a strong and lively accompaniment is indicative of a quasi-baroque approach involving harmony-directed (rather than melody-directed) musical exposition. Thus Mozart’s right hand melodies, far from being autonomous swells, or imposing reams of sounds, were likely nuanced and articulated with great respect for the surrounding harmony. Alongside this highly articulated style of playing, numerous contemporary reports praise his playing highly for its spirit, grace and beauty (beauty at the time being associated with nature), and also for its quasi-improvisatory feel (Mozart was an exemplary improviser), whilst others noted that the functional melodies resulted in a certain emotional tension rarely found in other performers of the time.
All in all, we can conclude from the available information that Mozart was able to successfully integrate this highly articulated ‘speech-like’ playing style into a musical product whose final impression, conceptually speaking, was that of a highly directional and beautiful line, or well-linked thought process, and which although tense from an emotional perspective, did not sound either manufactured and deliberate, nor unnatural.
The art of Mozart is being able to balance these seemingly opposing forces – a melody that is conceptually linear (and therefore emotionally intense) and yet very well ornamented with regard to the micro-articulations (the subtle ebb and flow and dynamic contrasts within phrases). A calculated and deliberate-sounding approach is difficult to avoid when playing from Mozart’s written notation, yet the piece must be made to sound improvised (or in Mozart’s own words, ‘composed afresh’). Finally, a harmony-governed approach to execution must respect that galante tastes demand the pre-eminence of a wonderfully memorable tune – another difficult aspect to weigh up.
Simply put, Bezuidenhout achieves this balance with astonishing success. On top of this, an aristocratic non-chalance, and resultant sensuality (an element which sadly is far too often omitted from late-18th century music) emerges in his playing, which is immensely satisfying. If you wish not merely to hear great Mozart playing, but immerse yourself in it, Bezuidenhout’s recordings of Mozart are an excellent collection to indulge in!
25 year old James Huntingford is a Canberra-based performer of both modern and historic keyboard instruments, and is a graduate of the ANU School of Music, where he studied under Professor Dr. Geoffrey Lancaster AM. Alongside his solo concert schedule, James’ musical life includes teaching, accompanying, continuo playing, conducting, chamber and orchestral performance, historical performance research, jazz improvisation and much more. For more about James, click here.