The magic of Mozart—As Mozart would have created it

The magic of Mozart—As Mozart would have created it

An Eastman keyboardist aims to capture the passion and romance of classical music as it sounded in the late 18th century.

Man playing a piano

METHOD TO MOZART: “Every time I heard someone play [Mozart’s] music, I was baffled by how terrified they sounded of doing the wrong thing,” Bezuidenhout says. “I was determined to find a way to bring out more passion, relaxation, and romance. And I could do that on these old pianos in a way that I just never could on a Steinway.”

Kristian Bezuidenhout ’01E, ’04E (MM) watched Amadeus, the 1984 semibiographical movie about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, when he was 10.

The “super lonely” child, as Bezuidenhout describes himself at that age, was “completely bamboozled by how beautiful the music was” and became obsessed both with the film and Mozart’s compositions, which he felt gave him a way to escape his solitude.

“Those feelings you have as a kid with music like that just never go away,” he says from his home in London.

Today, Bezuidenhout is a leading period-instrument keyboard player, best known for his fortepiano interpretations of the complete keyboard music of Mozart (Harmonia Mundi record label). Earlier this year, he released his 25th album—the last volume of the complete Beethoven Concertos (Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3) recorded with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

A regular guest with the world’s leading ensembles—and with conductors including Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe, Giovanni Antonini, and Daniel Harding—Bezuidenhout was named Most Exciting Young Musician for the 2005–06 season by the Dutch Federation of Music and Drama and earned a nomination in 2013 as Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year.

During the 2017–18 season he became an artistic director of the Freiburger Barockorchester and principal guest conductor with the English Concert.

Future projects include Bach Christmas Cantatas and Handel Dixit Dominus—both with the Freiburger Barockorchester— and the English Concert, featuring Purcell Odes and Handel Chandos.

In one music review, the New York Times wrote that Bezuidenhout’s performance of keyboard works by Mozart demonstrated the “dazzling variety of colors he can draw from his instrument.”

Bezuidenhout’s repertoire extends beyond Mozart to works by Baroque and Romantic composers, including Purcell, Handel, and Bach, to the music of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. But Mozart has remained a main focus for the Australian/South African pianist—in part to interpret the prolific composer’s works in new ways.

“Every time I heard someone play his music, I was baffled by how terrified they sounded of doing the wrong thing,” he says. “I was determined to find a way to bring out more passion, relaxation, and romance. And I could do that on these old pianos in a way that I just never could on a Steinway.

“While there is a great deal to be learned from historical sources, an equally important aspect of my approach is based on ‘gut’ feelings; on the realization of sounds in my imagination,” he adds. “It is a highly postmodern exercise in a sense—deeply subjective and based on background and personal experience.”

Bezuidenhout says the Eastman School of Music was instrumental in allowing him to develop that trial-and-error approach as an advanced keyboard student.

He remembers “a constellation of important people” at Eastman who valued that process much more than a heavily structured curriculum.

“It was this free, open environment where there was so much experimentation,” he says. “They allowed me to be myself at a time when—at least hypothetically—other faculty might have tried to suppress these slightly fantastical tendencies.”

Those tendencies included bouncing between the fortepiano, harpsichord, flute, and chamber music.

For example, Rebecca Penneys, a professor emerita of piano and Bezuidenhout’s principal piano instructor, was “unbelievably open-minded.” Meantime, Paul O’Dette, a professor of lute, inspired him to use historical information to enliven and enrich music making. (Bezuidenhout became O’Dette’s assistant for several years). He also counts his work with Malcolm Bilson (fortepiano) and Arthur Hass (harpsichord) as deeply stimulating: “Both teachers instilled in me a newly found appreciation of the myriad possibilities offered by these instruments; they are both scrupulous stylists, too—remarkable.”

“We were renegades in a way,” he says of himself and his peers, “with the consent of our teachers.”

That preference for unconventionality paid off. The year Bezuidenhout received his bachelor’s degree, he recorded his first disc of Mozart, titled Sturm und Drang, and captured first prize at the prestigious Bruges Fortepiano Competition.

About 60 percent of Bezuidenhout’s typical music season is solo work, which he finds the most demanding. When recently preparing to perform the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 for the first time, he spent between five and six hours a day for several weeks before he felt ready.

He also performs chamber music—the accompaniment of vocal repertoire is a particular source of joy—and collaborates with musicians such as tenor Mark Padmore, Carolyn Sampson, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Isabelle Faust.

“It’s a fantastic mix,” he says. “I could never get bored because there’s such constant variety in this field. I always wanted a career that would challenge me in many different directions.”

For another challenge, Bezuidenhout is thinking about buying a harpsichord so that he can delve into the instrument more deeply. He’s looking forward to several years of intense training and possible future recordings including the Bach Harpsichord Concertos (with single strings).

But it needs to be the right kind of training—the kind he received generously at Eastman at a time when he was trying to build a child’s dream into what would become a professional career.

“It was an entire atmosphere of collective acceptance and flexibility,” he says. “I had that in a complete sense from everyone I came across there.”

This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of Rochester Review magazine.

— Written by Robin L. Flanigan