Friday, October 20, 2023

University Concert Hall, Limerick, Ireland

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

South African-born, London-based keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout has triggered some mixed reviews for his fortepiano Beethoven cycle with Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburger Barockorchester released by Harmonia Mundi last year – just though it was to read Patrick Rucker’s Gramophone opinion of the First and Third Concertos “open[ing] windows on to new vistas of Beethoven interpretation seldom glimpsed, admitting at the same time rooms full of welcome fresh air.”

Limerick’s handsome University Concert Hall, an acoustically inviting thousand-plus capacity venue inaugurated in 1993, hosted stylish modern instrument readings that were physically invigorating, rhythmically lithe and exploratory across the spectrum. Bezuidenhout isn’t one of those players who sticks to tried and tested preparation. Spurning routine, he likes to live, extemporise and chance the moment, taking the score as a blueprint, illuminating bars, paragraphs and chapters with different slants and unexpected glints. Directed with economy and clarity – passingly gestured body language, occasionally open-spread arms, emphasizing key points – the C-minor Third Concerto benefited from vernal immediacy, the opening Allegro a sprightly 4/4 con brio (acknowledging the manuscript/first edition rather than the 2/2 of certain later printings). Typically, rests had their place and value, breathed and elongated depending on context and undercurrent. Tempo similarly was expressively flexible. Ensuring a continuo presence throughout helped vitalise statement and inflect conversazione. Three moments impacted audibly: (i) the unexpected realisation of the descending fingered scale before the first movement cadenza as a glissando; (ii) the arpeggiated quasi recitativo chording opening the E-major Largo (advocated by Bezuidenhout on his recording, witness also elsewhere his Fourth Concerto’s introduction); and (iii) a boldly extended Finale cadenza replacing the composer’s otherwise familiar caesura at bar 26 (thirty seconds in). When Beethoven premiered the Third in Vienna in 1803, the conductor Ignaz von Seyfried turned pages for him. They were, he remembered, virtually devoid of notation: “at the most […] a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.” Beethoven’s contemporaries would have identified with Bezuidenhout’s ‘living on the edge’ approach.

Launching the evening, the First Concerto, all brightness and C-major flourish with a darker A-flat heart, had plentiful uplift, crisp marcia nuances, the accents and coiled springs of the Finale’s A-minor material, teasing the senses. Slid rather than fingered, divided between hands, the descending octave glissando of the former’s re-transition blazed a shooting star across the firmament. A convincing Beethoven-Bezuidenhout crossover of first-movement cadenza options.

Elegantly fluid and responsive, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, led by Nicola Sweeney – violins to the left, three cellos and a double bass to the right, Steinway at ninety degrees separating the two sections (tail into ensemble, keyboard facing audience, no lid) – supported with connoisseur poise and alacrity. Some lovely string articulation and pizzicato tone; perky woodwind (Fiona Kelly’s flute carrying like a skirling guerre de la deuxième coalition war-pipe); hard-stick period drums (Jonathan Raper finding haunted poetry in the shadowlands following the Third Concerto’s main cadenza).