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Muscular Mendelssohn — On Fortepiano

Marco Borggreve
Harmonia Mundi

Kristian Bezuidenhout is about to rock your world.

Maybe that statement sounds a bit too hyperbolic — but once you hear this South African-born fortepianist play, you'll instantly forget whatever preconceptions you might have about tinny, flavorless and too-precious-by-half period performances.

What we have here, by contrast, is playing that is muscular, vigorous, colorful and vital. Even the slow movements are sweet and tender, a world away from music-box tinkling that often plagues fortepiano adventurers. Playing a modern copy of an 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano, Bezuidenhout (bih-ZAY-den-hoat) simply knocks aside what we in the 21st century would consider the old instrument's intrinsic impediments to such matters as line and heft. Somehow, despite the fact that he can't pull off certain pianistic tricks — leaning his body into the instrument, for example, is never going to change its sound or response — Bezuidenhout creates magic.

Bezuidenhout's temperament and astonishing skills are a perfect match for this youthful repertoire. Mendelssohn had a severely truncated lifespan — he died at age 38 — but the pair of works presented here are the products of a particularly brilliant and prolific young mind.

The album opens with the well-known Piano Concerto in A minor, a piece the composer wrote for his greatly gifted older sister, Fanny, in 1822, when he was just 25. An even greater surprise is the Double Concerto for violin and piano, which had its premiere when Mendelssohn was a mere 14. (By then, it must be noted, Mendelssohn had already tossed off about a hundred compositions.)

Mendelssohn wrote this concerto for himself and his best friend from childhood, Eduard Rietz, who also served as the composer and pianist's chief violin tutor. (Rietz also met a tragically quick end, dying at age 30.) It's a work shot through with adolescent bravado and a quick wit.

Bezuidenhout's partners here are his frequent collaborators, the Freiburger Barockorchester and their violinist/conductor, Gottfried von der Goltz, who takes the other solo part in the double concerto. Von der Goltz is a great match for Bezuidenhout, and the Freiburg musicians give impassioned and precise performances of their own.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.