Kristian Bezuidenhout. (Marco Borggreve)

For Kristian Bezuidenhout, the art of historically informed performance is no dry, academic exercise but a bold act of musical imagination. In an illuminating recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, the South African fortepiano specialist brought interpretive daring, expressive freedom and technical resourcefulness to a restless and fascinating exploration of the music of Mozart and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

The fortepiano offers musicmaking on an intimate scale. It has a lighter, mellower and more transparent sound than a modern Steinway, with more dramatic contrasts in color between registers. Playing a modern replica of an 1800 fortepiano by Johann Schantz, Bezuidenhout opened up a kaleidoscopic sound world, with seemingly endless variations of color, articulation and phrasing. His masterly command of the expressive possibilities of the instrument was allied with imaginative interpretive liberties and an operatic sense of timing and drama.

Two idiosyncratic works by C.P.E. Bach, the Rondo in C Minor and Sonata in E Minor, foregrounded an interpretation of Mozart that brought out the music’s radicalism: the bold dissonances, harmonic disjunctions and mercurial moods. Bezuidenhout capped an energetic performance of Mozart’s Suite in C, K. 399, with the Gigue in G, K. 574, a mischievous and wildly chromatic homage to Bach and Handel. In the Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475, Bezuidenhout reveled in the music’s wandering chromaticism and thrilling sense of improvisatory drama.

Although one perhaps missed the modern piano’s ability to sustain an expansive line in the plaintive Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, Bezuidenhout’s subtle shadings and inward intensity nonetheless suggested the depths of private tragedy. The recital concluded with a delightful reading of Mozart’s great Sonata in B-Flat, K. 333. The magical, otherworldly quality of the repeat of the development of the slow movement came courtesy of the fortepiano’s moderator mechanism. Although an ingrate might observe that the moderator was invented after this sonata was written, Bezuidenhout’s beautiful employment of it felt convincingly Mozartean in spirit — just like everything else that sprang from the performer’s searching musical imagination.

Chin is a freelance writer.