If you think Beethoven’s 250th will unfairly suck the oxygen out of programming, then go to a period instrument performance and think again, especially if the program is as contextualized and revelatory as Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn Society’s valentine to the composer. You will find yourself in an entirely different sound world where the music sings in a new voice. Density gives way to a unique refinement and clarity denied modern instruments and orchestras, even those which assimilate historic performance practice for individual conductors. Guts strings, the mellow resonance of pearwood, boxwood, maple and ebony, and the absence of metal and cross stringing in the fortepiano (here encompassing only six-and-a-half octaves) yield a warmer palette of colors, abetted by lower tuning (in this case A=430 hz). The distinct quality of each of the fortepiano’s registers perks up the ears – the robust murmur of the H&H instrument’s bass register in particular – and allows for unaccustomed contrasts.

Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra © Sam Brewer
Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra
© Sam Brewer

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto shared the evening with works by two antecedents he admired – CPE Bach and Mozartcharting the liminal territory between Baroque and Classical. Bezuidenhout presided from a Douglas fir and white ash, four-pedalled fortepiano from Maine’s RJ Regier, modelled after early 19th-century instruments by Graf and Bösendorfer. Concerto aside, he led with the top off and the keyboard facing the audience.

Economical gestures from Bezuidenhout’s cupped right hand molded phrases and provided emphasis, with the first chairs weaving a taut, chamber music unanimity and blend. The rapport between soloist and orchestra was intimate, eloquent, and conversational, the fortepiano integrated into the fabric of the ensemble for a genial, ebullient Rondo. Bezuidenhout often rose from the bench in the string symphony and the Linz, leading with his right while playing chords with his left. Crisply enunciated ornaments and quicksilver passage work wed to a light, flexible touch and painterly pedalling defined his solo pianism.

Placing the two horns and two trumpets on opposite sides of the stage and the timpani near the far corner to the conductor’s right facilitated a balanced blend in the concerto and Linz. The woodwinds sat on a raised platform at the center back, a prominence which revealed Beethoven’s rarely registered interplay with the piano- the bassoon’s colloquies with the soloist in particular – and the Regier fortepiano’s woodwind timbres.

Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra © Sam Brewer
Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra
© Sam Brewer

Incisive attacks propelled the concerto’s first movement. Bezuidenhout’s virtuosity in Beethoven’s cadenza hinted that the passage could easily stand alone, but what most impressed was the sensitivity to the movement’s architecture infused with such high energy that it triggered enthusiastic applause. He summoned a singing voice tinged with melancholy despite his instrument’s honeyed tone for the Largo, then chased all the clouds away with a buoyant, playful Rondo.

CPE Bach’s string symphony proved an intriguing curtain-raiser, indulging in unexpected transitions in mood, rhythm and key, as if challenging the audience of nobles who first heard it to pay attention.This was not the usual party piece commission; Baron van Swieten (whose patronage later extended to Mozart and Beethoven) gave the composer free rein and he ran with it. Bezuidenhout and the H&H orchestra dug in with a lively, rhythmically alert performance deftly tacking for the score’s twists and turns.

Bezuidenhout was sensitive to Mozart’s use of postponement in the Linz’s first movement with its several hints at closure creating a tension building to an ambiguous resolution. Darkness shadowed the lyricism of the second movement, followed by an impish minuet. The Presto tripped lightly on its feet – Mozart again toying with expectations, interrupting with rests – before coming to an exuberant close. Standing ovations often seem Pavlovian these days, but not the ones which greeted both halves of this program. These ovations were earned.

*****