The South African-born, Gold Coast-educated fortepianist talks Mozart and the therapeutic effect of mixing a cocktail.

What was your personal way into Mozart as a child?

My parents were big music lovers. Neither of them played any instruments, but they were avid record collectors and music was very much part of their daily life. My brother and sister both learnt piano as a matter of course and it’s safe to say that my parents played a lot of Mozart when I was growing up. There was a lot of Bach and Beethoven as well, but there was a lot of Mozart. I’d say that connecting with Mozart was the entryway into classical music for me. It was a kind of door that unlocked everything else. When I was 10 or 11, I became completely obsessed with Mozart – actually dangerously so [laughs] – and it went from there.

Who were the pianists that you first got to know playing Mozart on standard piano?

I listened to very little keyboard music, to be honest, at the very beginning. It was mostly vocal and orchestral music. But I remember very distinctly listening to Christian Zacharias playing Mozart sonatas when I was younger. I was actually very struck by the kind of drama and care for detail that Zacharias plays with in that repertoire. But to be honest, I wasn’t really searching out piano performances of Mozart so much as I was listening to symphonies and operas and chamber music. But certainly Maria João Pires’ Mozart concertos with Abbado was another that recording I remember from that period. But I wasn’t so interested in actually listening to keyboard music as was in studying it and playing it. It was very clear to me even then that I wanted more context from my listening.

Kristian BezuidenhoutKristian Bezuidenhout. Photo © Marco Borggreve

So what was your reaction and when the fortepiano first crashed into your life?

It was a recording question for me and it came through John Eliot Gardiner. The first recording I ever heard of his was the St Matthew Passion from the late 80s, and after that I started selecting more and more Mozart recordings. His Requiem and C Minor Mass came out and I became completely fascinated by the results. I was struck by the incredible classiness of the playing, and also the recording quality and the whole kind of scholarly endeavour, and the passion and colour and verve with which the whole thing was delivered.

When I heard that he was recording the Mozart piano concertos, I was naturally very curious, but all that was available at that time in Australia was the complete box set which was prohibitively expensive. But I remember getting a single volume of concertos, which was Nos 17 and 20, K453 and K466, with Malcolm Bilson, and to be honest I was shocked, a bit negatively. I’d become used to the sound world of Gardiner’s orchestra and period instruments, but the fortepiano sound was so unbelievably foreign, so totally alien to me. My first reaction was, “Gosh, I know I have to like this, but how do I get into this sound world?” There was a secret mystery about the sound that only became clear to me when I started playing the instrument a few years later. And that didn’t happen until I was about 18.

Have you ever sat down and analysed what it is about you and Mozart? Because it is a special bond, I think. I’m not sure he’s drawn to you, because he’s dead, but what draws you to him?

Do know you, this sort of question comes up in interviews and these are the only times I have to really confront the issue. I think that the more I know Mozart’s music, and the more I know his character, I am very attracted to many things about him. I think he was a kind of tricky, complicated person, but I’m very drawn to Mozart’s place historically and how difficult it was for him. I mean, I know Mozart was a wunderkind and had everything laid out for him on a platter in a sense, but Mozart struggled in a most vivid and profound way with his place in the world in a way that someone like Beethoven or someone like Haydn never had to deal with. Mozart sets up this unbelievable life for himself in Vienna in the 1780s and says, “OK, to hell with Salzburg, to hell with the security of a normal position, I’m just going to go it alone and teach and play concerts and write piano concertos and operas and hope for the best.”

What I find so beguiling and so interesting about Mozart is how much investment there is in the material, how much he is investing himself compositionally all the time. There’s always this unbelievable sense of control and classiness and elegance, but at the same time re-evaluating, reinvigorating, and inventing genres from scratch – like the piano quartet for example, or the string quintet. This constant sense of never being happy with what you’re doing, but delivering everything that you do with this incredible ease and seamless, oil-like control. It doesn’t have the struggle or the kind of defiance against the God that you hear in Beethoven, but it’s consistently the most heart-breakingly beautiful music that I play. I love playing Bach, and I love playing Beethoven, and I love playing Schubert, but there is no other composer who consistently moves me. It’s that combination of awe and reverence for the quality and beauty of the material, but also, as Rothko said so beautifully, that sense of “smiling through tears” that you sense with Mozart. You sometimes get the shivers, and that mode of expression I always find moving on the platform when I play Mozart. And I don’t have that with other composers.

In Australia you are playing K415, the C Major No 13, which is perhaps not his best known piano concerto. Why that work, and what are the challenges and special pleasures for you?

We wanted a concerto that worked with a string quartet, so there were really four choices. I wanted to stay away from K414, the A Major, No 12, because it’s a piece that is played much more often. I really wanted to play one of these early concertos, because I think they are marvellous pieces, incredibly full of wit and invention. They are Mozart’s first mature utterances in the genre in Vienna, apart from K271, the Ninth Piano Concerto from Salzburg, which was undeniably a huge breakthrough for him and a massive masterpiece. But the C Major concerto, K415 has an incredible hidden beauty in it and shows Mozart really toying with our perceptions of the genre.

The first movement, for example, is a kind of military inspired C Major movement with trumpets and drums in the full version with winds, and yet in its gestural world, Mozart sets up a very interesting paradigm. It’s a public piece for piano and orchestra that is being presented in public for a paying audience, but Mozart begins the piano concerto pianissimo and in fact ends it pianissimo as well. The lively 6/8 finale is full of virtuoso material, but it’s classic Mozart because he breaks up the narrative of the last movement and includes this incredibly plaintive C Minor Adagio theme in 2/4. That is something he’ll return to in later concertos, like K482 where he introduces a kind of gentle minuet, or the lyrical 3/4 he brings into K271.

The challenge of playing these earlier concertos is that there isn’t as much to latch onto as in the later pieces and they are much less richly orchestrated. The building blocks of the symphonic style that we see in the later pieces is absolutely there, and they have to be taken just as seriously and delivered with just as much panache, I think, but every time you perform a piano concerto like K415 you realise that these later pieces don’t come out of nowhere. These early concertos are full of such wildly beautiful melodies, especially K415, which is one of the top Mozart works from the 1780s. After playing this piece in an orchestral form it will be delightful and we will feel refreshed by playing it with a string quartet. I’m very excited about that.

What are the gains from playing it with string quartet? Presumably with a fortepiano there is less of a volume issue.

Exactly. Balance becomes a lot easier with string quartet. What people hear is possibly closer to the 18th-century idea of what it means to play with an orchestra. Even in the mature Mozart piano concertos we are talking about an orchestra of six first violins, six seconds, four violas, two cellos and three basses – those are the numbers we have from the Burgtheater in Vienna. But I think Mozart’s idea of what it means to play in an orchestra was very different. It was very much closer to chamber music.

We know from contemporary orchestral parts that Mozart often played piano concertos in a reduced version, possibly only one or maybe two players to a part. The idea of a section of eight violins doing exactly the same bowing and articulation and phrasing is much more of a 19th-century ideal with Beethoven and the Paris school. So a Mozart piano concerto with a string quartet makes for a much more conversational style of orchestral playing. And I’ve always thought that the boundaries between orchestral playing and chamber music were much less boldly drawn in the 18th century than they are now. When you start to hear how Mozart can take the genre of the piano concerto and present it in a chamber version, you begin to realise that the lines between that and something like the piano quartet – which as I said was a genre that Mozart invented – are very hard to draw.

Mozart’s first instrument would have been the harpsichord. Do you play that publicly as well?

I do, more and more. In fact it’s the first instrument that I started with in terms of keyboards. I’ve just recorded the Bach accompanied Violin Sonatas with Isabelle Faust, which will be coming out later this year on Harmonia Mundi. I am playing quite a lot of solo recitals as well – a mixed programme of Bach, Handel, and Louis Couperin. So yes, there will be more and more solo harpsichord in the future.

So after all that, what do you do to relax?

[laughs] I have to be honest, I love mixing cocktails. That brings so much joy and relaxation. Getting home and finding some new cocktail recipe or creating one from scratch, that is big joy. My brother is an interior designer and interior design remains one of my big passions. Just coming home from a tour and looking after the house, or having people over, making some cocktails and throwing a dinner party, I find that really relaxing. But I have to say, I am still a serious geek and a serious nerd. I love keeping up with what’s going on with old and new recordings and really taking the time to sit down and listen, and studying scores to get to know repertoire that I wouldn’t necessarily play. Just to sit down with the score of a Mozart string quintet and listen carefully and really get to know them – it’s so exciting. I remember having that experience recently with Bach cantatas as well. There’s so much to discover and so little time. It’s so inspiring.

Kristian Bezuidenhout plays Mozart and Schumann with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tour from June 24 – July 9