An evening at Wigmore Hall with the fabulous Freiburger Barockorchester and fortepiano star Kristian Bezuidenhout in the keyboard concertos of CPE Bach and Mozart – what could go wrong? That was my initial thought when I chose to attend this concert. Indeed, in many ways this concert fulfilled my expectations. The orchestra, playing standing up throughout, was in sparkling form, playing as ever with commitment and great intensity that is their trademark. In particular, their performance of the G minor symphony by Johann Christian Bach was revelatory. Yet at the same time, there were frustrating moments, mainly due to the fortepiano's occasional inaudibility.

Kristian Bezuidenhout © Marco Borggreve
Kristian Bezuidenhout
© Marco Borggreve
The programme, entitled “Spirit of Sturm und Drang”, featured mid-18th-century symphonies and concertos by CPE Bach, JC Bach, Haydn and Mozart that broadly reflected the so-called “storm and stress” style, a term used to describe minor-key works with a turbulent and urgent sentiment. Of the four works, JC Bach’s G minor symphony (published in 1770) seemed to capture this sentiment best, an unexpected discovery as I had always associated this composer with a more genial and gallant style music. The stormy first movement was full of unusual rhythmic and harmonic turns with plenty of string tremolo playing which was articulated with gusto. The second movement motif felt surprisingly familiar, and the programme informed me that a similar motif appears in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor. Indeed here and elsewhere, one could appreciate where Mozart got his ideas from (not only in terms of motifs, but harmony and structure). Judging from this piece, we should be listening to more JC Bach to understand the music of the mid-18th century.

In this symphony (and in the vivaciously played Symphony no. 47 in G major by Haydn), Bezuidenhout directed from the keyboard – except that he did very little “directing” (it didn’t help that he wasn’t facing the orchestra) as leader Anne Katharina Schreiber was doing a splendid job bringing the ensemble together. He joined in the bass line adding some harmonies with the right hand, but from my seat at the back of the hall it was hardly audible (audience members sitting closer to the stage should have heard more).

I am not against Bezuidenhout directing a symphony from the keyboard in principle – although current Haydn scholarship has asserted that his symphonies at Esterháza would have been directed from the violin as there is no evidence of a keyboard player in the court orchestra. Certainly, there is a stronger case for JC Bach’s symphonies as he would have directed them from the keyboard at the Bach-Abel Concerts in London. But here, Bezuidenhout didn't add anything in terms of sonority or leadership.

I hasten to declare that Bezuidenhout’s solo playing in the two piano concertos by CPE Bach and Mozart was spirited and stylish. He has already proved what a brilliant and sensitive Mozart player he is from his recently completed survey of the composer’s keyboard music on the fortepiano, and his playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.14 in E flat major had moments of brilliance as well as hushed intimacy as in the Andantino second movement. On the whole, the fortepiano and orchestra managed to achieve a good balance even in the rich textures of the finale.

What should the ideal balance be between the fortepiano and orchestra? How would things have sounded back in the 18th century? Perhaps our ears are too used to the prominence of the modern piano against the orchestra. Maybe fortepianos could never really rise above the orchestra in the way we expect today. Or perhaps the size of the Freiburgers (15 string players, two oboes, bassoon and two horns) was too large in proportion to the lightweight and delicate sound of the fortepiano, especially at Wigmore Hall.

A case in point was their performance of CPE Bach’s keyboard concerto (originally for harpsichord) in D minor Wq17 where the strings often played with such lively enthusiasm that the delicate fortepiano was submerged except in the solo moments. There were some beautiful ensemble moments within the second movement though (with muted strings) which was full of unusual and delicious harmonic progressions.

Still, my frustration of not being able to hear the fortepiano at times was all dispelled when Bezuidenhout offered the second movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major K.330 as a solo encore. He is such a genuine and natural Mozartian and the way he lovingly shaped this piece was utterly breathtaking. 

***11