At an age when most musicians are still consolidating their careers, Kristian Bezuidenhout has established himself as the foremost practitioner of his instrument. He plays the fortepiano, the term used today to designate pianos of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the sort of pianos that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven played and composed for. Wednesday night Bezuidenhout returned to the Library of Congress, where he made his Washington debut eight years ago, in a program of Haydn and Beethoven.
Unlike some performers who hit their stride only after warming up with a piece or two, Bezuidenhout starts making music the moment his fingers touch the keyboard. Two youthful Beethoven Rondos, Op. 51 displayed the silvery singing quality of the fortepiano, in this case a replica by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of an instrument built by Schanz about 1800. The lithe D Major Sonata, Op. 10, No. 3 overflowed with Beethoven’s inimitable sense of humor, occasionally subtle but more often in your face, surrounding a slow movement of deep seriousness.
The highlight of the evening was Haydn’s F Minor Variations. Bezuidenhout negotiated the alternating dark introspection and intermittent sunlight of this masterpiece with an arsenal of varied touch and articulation, demonstrating that the master Haydn can stand without apology next to Beethoven, his precocious pupil. Appropriately, the “Sonata Pathétique,” where Beethoven’s musical message is conveyed by fully exploiting the fortepiano’s sonorous potential, from rattling octaves and biting emphasis to hazes of blended harmony, concluded the concert.
This compelling musical experience left little doubt that the long process begun in the 1950s, the “revival” of the fortepiano, so different in size and sound from the modern instrument yet with its own uniquely rich expressive capacities, has now reached fruition. In his calm assurance, Bezuidenhout is its exemplar. He has nothing to prove and everything to share.