★★★½☆ Much to enjoy, but some missed programming opportunities.

Melbourne Recital Centre
June 26, 2017

“Intimate Mozart” is the name of the current Australian Chamber Orchestra tour which features South African-born, Australian-raised keyboard player, Kristian Bezuidenhout and a string quartet comprising ACO regulars, Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone and Timo-Veikko “Tipi” Valve together with guest violist, Florian Peelman. The programme is somewhat surprising, for while there is intimacy and Mozart – and indeed intimate Mozart – most of the music is by Schumann. Now, I have nothing at all against Schumann, but to sandwich a Mozart Piano Concerto between Schumann’s last String Quartet and his gargantuan Piano Quintet in E Flat is, to say the least, a study in contrasts.

Intimate Mozart, Australian Chamber OrchestraRichard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Florian Peelman and Timo-Veikko Valve. Photos © Zan Wimberley

Schumann’s last String Quartet (in A Major, Op. 41, No 3) is itself full of contrasts, beginning with a delicate, halting introduction, beautifully characterised by Tognetti, that gives way to a lyrical first movement in which Valve’s cello played a memorable role. The offbeat rhythmic writing in both the first and second movements was adroitly handled, underlining the finely honed sense of ensemble that prevailed throughout the work. In the slow third movement the group’s balanced, cohesive sound was used to great effect, while the rustic finale conveyed joyous abandon without sacrificing rhythmic acuity.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 13 in C major (K415) was then presented in its pared-down version for soloist and string quartet. (This way of hearing concertos is particularly enjoyable as those who have experienced Brooklyn’s famous Bargemusic will attest.) Given that we have heard so much about Bezuidenhout’s prowess as a fortepiano exponent, it was a pity that a big, black Steinway was rolled into place in the middle of the players. Even though this was a missed opportunity to draw audiences into the very intimate sound world of the fortepiano, Bezuidenhout managed the modern instrument with great sensitivity, especially in the lively acoustic of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Whether in the martial opening or in the dance-like finale, neatly sprung rhythms kept the music light and buoyant, allowing Mozart’s witty harmonic inflections to be pointed out within a context of elegance and charm. In the central Andante, Bezuidenhout moulded his melodic solos with an admirable air of improvisatory freedom, while still alert to the broader contexts of tempo and harmony. Bezuidenhout’s polished playing never drew unnecessary attention to itself, and the delicate ending of the concerto further added to the air of intimacy established by the players.

Intimate Mozart, Australian Chamber OrchestraThe Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Intimate Mozart

Then comes a quantum leap. What a difference sixty years can make. Not only the rise of Romanticism but changes in piano technology see the small-scale world of the Mozart concerto give way to the bravura utterances of the Schumann quintet. The role of the pianist changes from a prodigy who is first among equals to that of an outsize personality competing for a place in the musical landscape. Such a transition in the space of an evening is not without challenges.

Bezuidenhout seemed keen in the opening movement of the quintet to emphasise the lyrical elements of the music at the expense of its more brilliant, muscular components. Slightly relaxing the speed did allow for some nice touches, such as the ornamentation in the exposition repeat, but did rob the score a little of its mercurial energy and onward flow. Balance between the piano and the strings was also an issue; the pulsing piano part in the second subject group, for example, needed greater prominence.

The spectral slow movement could have benefitted from a more deliberate tempo so as to underscore its important silences and aid increased rhythmic unanimity. Fanned into flame by Tognetti’s zeal and some marvellous exchanges between Peelman’s powerful Mörth viola and Valve’s Amati cello, the Scherzo really took flight, resulting in a tumultuous conclusion where Bezuidenhout really came out his of shell. This set up a promising start for the finale but the closing fugato on the opening theme could have benefitted from even greater urgency and power.

Even though there was much to enjoy in this concert, I wonder whether a different approach to programming might have resulted in a more rewarding and coherent musical experience. Using a fortepiano would have opened up a different world for concertgoers and placing other “classical” works around the Mozart concerto would have allowed Bezuidenhout to demonstrate further his considerable specialist abilities. I have no doubt that ACO audiences would respond well to such a broadening vision.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra and Kristian Bezuidenhout tour Intimate Mozart nationally until July 9.


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