For many the fortepiano is an unfamiliar soundworld, but it just might help us hear Mozart’s genius afresh.

As a Mozart specialist, do you agree with Glenn Gould, who famously said that Mozart died too late rather than too early, that all his best piano works were written before he was 25?

Not really. One has to be sensitive to the fact that Mozart wrote what was required of him. Mozart was not the kind of stereotypical 19th-century composer who writes for himself and himself only, and occasionally does something for someone else. Mozart writes for very specific purposes, and for every purpose he does things perfectly – that is his genius. The piano concerto is his most selfish genre, because it is really only for himself. So he writes the most unbelievably forward-looking music you can imagine. As for the sonatas, Mozart is writing for amateurs – nobles who need elegant charming pieces to practice on and also show off their technique. The solo sonatas need to be treated with a lot more love and care, and an approach that aims to plumb the depths and bring out more of this operatic style contrast. It’s there, but I think it’s underplayed by our obsession with legato playing and playing elegantly.

Legato and singing tone are the keynotes of the modern “Steinway-style” of playing. What does the fortepiano bring to these works that a modern grand doesn’t? 

On the fortepiano you can really lay into the instrument, and kind of create an atmosphere of excitement and danger that doesn’t sound over the top. There’s always this pressure on the Steinway to hold back. You can feel that in performances of Mozart on the Steinway; there’s an undercurrent of tension, this feeling of “I have to really watch out here” and not to play too loudly or go over the top. I find it’s liberating to hear this repertoire on fortepiano because I don’t have that feeling.

As a pianist, obviously you grew up playing a modern piano. Was there a road to Damascus moment when you realised there was another way of playing Classical keyboard repertoire?

For me it was playing a five-octave fortepiano in Rochester in New York – a piano that lives at the school where I was studying. The overwhelming feeling was one of frustration, actually, because the piano is so different and the action is so demandingly precise, and the keys are so shallow. It feels like everything you know about keyboard technique goes out the window. On the other hand, I thought, “Wow, OK, this is an action I have no knowledge of; and this is a piano Mozart cut his teeth on and played for the best part of his life.” I felt that this is a window into the real concert life of someone in the late 18th century. I was totally obsessed with Mozart – I still am – so it was an invitation to re-explore this repertoire I loved so much, but which I just couldn’t really make sense of on the Steinway. 

The ideal for a Steinway is to have an even sound across the whole register. A fortepiano is very different, because the bass and middle and top are so sonically distinct. Is evenness something you look for in a fortepiano?

I think evenness is one of those ideals that comes from the post-industrial age of uniformity; it’s a demand for machine-like consistency. All of these Viennese fortepianos that Mozart would have played on have a non-uniform striking point – and it’s very obvious that someone like Mozart would really know what to write in what register. His melodies are always in a certain area of the treble, and music that is turbulent and stressful tends to happen in turgid areas of the bass. And then you also expect an incredible brilliance of sound in that extreme upper treble. That sense of the geography of the keyboard is harder to capture on the Steinway, because the thing is just so perfect. 

Tell us what pieces you’re playing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra this month.

The Piano Concerto No 22, K482, was written right after Figaro. Mozart’s work with grand opera left a major mark on that concerto, and there’s something very special about the orchestration, because the composer leaves out oboes. So you have this amazing wind band sound of flutes and clarinets and bassoons and horns; there are trumpets and timpani as well, which act as an emblem of military grandeur. I mean, for someone to do that in the middle of the 1780s – to decide to suddenly put in clarinets and delete oboes – it must have been a very, very unusual sound for the public. K482 is actually my favourite piano concerto hands-down – it’s just such an extraordinary piece.

You’ve also chosen a very early work, the D-major Rondo.

Yes, the D-major Rondo was one of the alternative Rondo endings for the piano concerto in D major K175, which is obviously a whole different world. It’s a lot fresher and more simple – a kind of festive piece. It’s a brilliant but slightly less sophisticated orchestral palate, trumpets and timpani obviously, winds kind of enriching the string sound rather than as a real solid personality as they are so strongly in K482. I think it’s a terrific idea to balance this kind of Salzburg Mozart sound with a kind of really mature Viennese Mozart sound that we all know and love so well. But for me it’s just terrific to come all the way to Sydney and Melbourne and to be able to do two chunks of repertoire like that. It’s a really nice opportunity. And it doesn’t happen that often, I have to say.  

Kristian Bezuidenhout plays Mozart with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra on July 29-August 8 in Sydney and Melbourne. He also plays a chamber music program at the Barossa Klassik festival in the Barossa Valley on July 23 and 24.

This article appears in the August issue of Limelight magazine, on sale now.