The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra began with the striking Overture from the ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus (Op. 43). Opening with dissonant chords and a remarkable low wind ensemble with the strings, Beethoven’s daring orchestration is immediately apparent.
There is a logical compositional progression from Mozart’s operatic Overtures such as Figaro but Beethoven’s unmistakable musical audacity is amplified by the early music ensemble rather than homogenised into a blended sound. That is, the idiosyncrasies of the early wind, string and brass instruments created an adventurous soundscape not so dominated by the string section, which has become a rather more modern expectation. The beauty of the ensemble playing was just that: it was without conductor, grander than an intimate chamber group, but perceptive and nuanced to each individual and section within the whole.
The Overture set the mood of the concert well. Defiant and colourful, and not unlike Orpheus, we leave the known world of Viennese classicism and the Sturm und Drang precedent of Romanticism to enter the phantasmagorical imagination of Beethoven. In this world, perhaps the most disruptive instrument was the Hammerklavier (or fortepiano). An instrument that in Mozart’s day captured the range and registers of the human voice perfectly, but by Beethoven was entering an ever-changing metamorphoses, symbolic of revolution, industrialisation, and lastly the sentiment of freedom that Beethoven craved philosophically and compositionally.
Enter Piano Concerto no. 4 (Op. 58) and its opening quasi-prelude. A light arpeggiation of the G major chord as if the performer is checking the regulation (touch) of the piano, leads directly into a simple yet exquisite phrase. The orchestra pivots its answer demurely in the mediant key. I’ve often pondered this moment as one of Beethoven’s greatest; wry, yet profoundly revolutionary. Did he intend to confound his contemporaneous audience with the suggestion of a full-scale improvisation? I suspect the shocking mediant progression is somewhat lost on modern audiences. This opening was played with exquisite poise and simplicity.
Kristian Bezuidenhout played beautifully throughout. His interpretation displayed a sincerity that refused to buckle to bombastic pianistic gestures or imagined rhetorical leftovers of the Baroque. His filigree playing was finely judged on the piano, in this instance one modelled after an 1815 Graf. But there were some obvious issues with the regulation of the piano that Bezuidenhout skilfully navigated (much to the oblivion of the audience). The idiosyncrasies of an early piano become part of the interpretation. This night we heard the pedal effects used to create great washes of harmony, a Romantic “wall of sound”, yet throughout these virtuosic displays Bezuidenhout maintained an elegance and precision that belied an aesthetic that was to bloom in aspirational Biedermeier Vienna.
His interpretation of the fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor” Op. 73) was equally glorious. The orchestra was especially fine, and the horns haunting in the second movement. The rhythmic underpinning of dances was felt throughout the entire concert. No turgid heaviness in the slower movements, no skittishness in the faster movements but rather a lightness and grace that beckoned a grandeur of hopefulness. As a whole, the orchestra conveyed a solidarity of conviction in their interpretation of Beethoven in synchrony with Bezuidenhout.
Returning to the fortepiano after a standing ovation, Bezuidenhout performed the second movement of the piano sonata Op. 10 no. 3 as an encore. This slow movement in D minor, displayed his command of the instrument’s sonorities; his depth of performance practice knowledge effortlessly synthesised to create a profoundly moving rendition of this work. His final two notes – repeated D2s – echoed in my head for days. The precision and deft beauty of the pianissimo of these notes was consummate artistry.
As Beethoven wrote, “Art! Who comprehends her?”, the concert certainly opened-up this difficult but ultimately rhetorical question. An audience does not require a simulacrum of a concert 200 years ago – we require invention, re-invention, conviction and the communication of the human spirit. Beethoven’s music will forever exist in his own Imaginarium: how we interpret this, how we convey this, is the conundrum. For one beautiful concert, we were given a possible answer full of grace and beauty.
Image: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Photo supplied.
Helen O’Brien reviewed Concert 2 of The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 11, 2020.