Kristian Bezuidenhout’s superb fortepiano recital in the Boston Early Music Festival concert series highlighted a paradox in the period-instrument movement. The attempt to re-create the sound of a past era is an inherently conservative undertaking; yet the performances that result often show great interpretive freedom. Old instruments, you might say, do not equate with stodgy performances.
This is particularly true of Bezuidenhout, who sees as his goal not merely accuracy but imaginative liberty. Speaking from the Jordan Hall stage on Friday, he offered a polite yet pointed criticism of “Apollinian” performances of Mozart that “don’t, perhaps, do justice to this music.”
Bezuidenhout sees that freedom as a link between Mozart and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, son of J.S. and a composer Mozart venerated. His Rondo in C minor, which opened the concert, was full of irregular rhythms and phrases that seemed to undo their own progress.
Mozart’s Suite in C major, K. 399, was an homage to the Baroque, yet its forward-looking harmonies would have surprised Bach and Handel. Bezuidenhout’s playing was astonishingly fluid on an instrument not known for its ease of use, but he also played a kind of game of shadow and light to draw out the piece’s darker undercurrents, especially in the Courante. Mozart left the piece unfinished; Bezuidenhout filled it out with two movements from Mozart’s oeuvre, including a Menuett that includes some of the most futuristic dissonances the composer ever wrote.
A Sonata in E minor by C.P.E. Bach, again full of mood contrasts, was the prelude to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, one of his most quietly radical works. Bezuidenhout’s performance was masterful, underscoring the music’s persistent gloom. At one point he introduced a completely new sound from the fortepiano, giving the music an almost Debussian wash of color.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing, and the relentless push and pull made Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue, K. 394, sound mannered. But the A-major Sonata, K. 331, was a complete triumph. Bezuidenhout used flexible tempos and dynamics, and above all, a shockingly varied timbre to convert the sonata into something of operatic scope and intensity. It was one of the most astonishing transformations of a familiar work I have ever heard.
He earned every moment of the ovation he received, and he responded by recognizing the remarkable instrument he had played on. There was a single encore — the mesmerizing slow movement of Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K. 330.