An Interview with Kristian Bezuidenhout

By · Photography © Marco Borggreve · Date 08/24/2017

Recently, I spoke with the keyboardist Kristian Bezuidenhout by phone. His demeanor was gentle without being apologetic: while ironing his shirts, he talked about the music of Bach with immense sincerity. But his programming often includes music by other composers, particularly Bach’s contemporaries. I was interested to find out why.

VAN: In an upcoming concert, you and Isabelle Faust are performing the complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord of Bach. But in the program, there appear to be works by other composers. Who are they?

Kristian Bezuidenhout: The music of both Johann Jakob Froberger and Franz Ignaz Biber exhibit the intersections of French, Italian, and Northern European styles from the 17th century. With Froberger, we had a student of Frescobaldi who transported the Italian style into the court at Vienna, but incorporated the smooth French harpsichord style of Louis Couperin into his compositions later in life.

The “Lamento” from the Suite XII FbWV 612 by Froberger. 

With Biber, we have an element of the stylus phantasticus, a brilliant and improvisatory style associated with the North German school, brought to bear upon works for the solo violin in a more Italianate genre. These composers were involved in the same process of stylistic cross-pollination that comes up all the time in the works of Bach.

Sonata violino solo representativa in A Major, The Nightingale, by Biber.

How so?

In the Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, it seems to me that there’s a fragrant melancholy in the melodies that is inspired by the gestural world of late 17th century French music, but also minuscule rhythmic cells à la Vivaldi that give Bach’s music that instantly recognizable sense of forward motion. Bach’s obsession with Vivaldi’s music is well known. I like to think that his fascination transcends the use of ritornello form, and instead is characterized by a new-found delight in using a basic and unrelenting rhythmic motive or texture—think of the Glassian third movement of BWV 1018—a mould into which Bach pours music of ever increasing harmonic daring.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Xz4SjUs6zs

The “Glassian third movement” of Bach’s Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Harpsichord in F Minor.

On top of that, you have the immense virtuosity and aching sonic beauty of the Italian violin school represented: think of the filigree and “endless” garlands of the first movement of BWV 1016. This reads as a very strong homage to Corelli, whether intentional or not.

The “filigree and ‘endless’ garlands” of the first movement of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 3 in E Major.

I suppose it’s a shame we’re not also playing some Vivaldi on the program, to exhibit more outlandish virtuosity and use of ritornello forms to expressive ends. Of course, the full extent Bach’s acquaintance with such music is unknowable, but the evidence paints the picture of a Bach extremely invested in the familiarization with and use of other styles.

Is such a programming choice considered unorthodox?

In the historical performance community, such an approach is very common. I was fortunate in my training as a harpsichordist to always have Bach’s music presented almost completely contextually. As an undergraduate, my teacher Arthur Haas spent time working in minute detail on Couperin’s “L’Art de toucher du Clavecin” and on Frescobaldi Toccatas. The bulk of my time wasn’t really spent on the huge works of Bach like the Goldbergs or the Italian Concerto, but on the musical and stylistic foundations upon which Bach built his great keyboard works.

But in the wider musical world, presenting his music alongside Kleinmeister (such a pejorative term, but I’m using it knowingly) can be frowned upon: almost as if setting Bach’s music alongside other works somehow sullies his genius or exceptionalism.

I firmly believe that the average man on the street can hear Bach and recognize its beauty and genius, but in so many concerts now, it’s as if Bach has to appear out of nowhere in 1685, with no outside influences, for him to be considered a great or towering figure in music history. Ironically, we’ve become a bit precious with his music. It’s no longer something to listen to, but has become an object of memorialization and inappropriate hallowing.

You think he was very much a creature of his time.

Exhibiting Bach’s works alongside his stylistic predecessors doesn’t sully his music in the least, but rather shows the extent to which Bach took stylistic hybridization to new heights. Playing Biber before Bach actually makes Bach sound different, as you have a sonic context for the music. The Bach we see is not just a “German” composer but a true cosmopolitan, not a conservative but a conscious rule-breaker, not an isolated genius but a composer keenly aware of the significance of his own work.

Why is there pushback against such an approach?

For quite a long period of time, Bach’s music has fallen victim to somewhat monolithic programming. It’s very trendy to do complete works of Bach, as if there is some element of pilgrimage in sitting and listening to a single genre of a single composer for a period of time.

What is disturbing to you about that kind of programming?

It restricts the audience’s experience and perhaps restrains the performer from being more expressive. More often than not, I turn on the radio and I hear a performance of Bach’s instrumental works and I think to myself, “Does it have to sound like that?” In our reverence for this repertoire—I’m speaking here of the solo instrumental music—we often forget to get to the core of the character in question. For example, one hears contrapuntal music being played, and sometimes I’m at a loss as to what the underlying “text” of the subject is. What is the basic DNA of the fugue subject?  What is the imagined cantata text that Bach sets this subject to? Counterpoint is music too!

When Isabelle Faust and I recorded the Bach Violin Sonatas, our top priority was re-infusing each movement with a stronger sense of color and atmosphere, and hopefully an immediately recognizable Affekt. The music of Biber is so extremely virtuosic and extroverted that it really gives the performers fresh ideas on the historical palette of expression Bach’s instrumental music; in a way it acts as a freeing device to play this late-17th century music before and around Bach.

You’ve appealed to historical context several times. Do we know how Bach himself programmed his music? Would he have performed all of his violin sonatas in a single concert?

We have precious little evidence that Bach himself intended for all the Sonatas to be performed at once. In fact, we have evidence quite to the contrary. Programs from Zimmermann’s coffeehouse in Leipzig reveal that there was a great deal of variety in genre, programming, and even flexibility of who was performing on what instrument. For instance, we may know that one of his sons might have been there, but we don’t know if he was playing violin, harpsichord or even both. Did father Bach play the violin, with one of the sons playing harpsichord, or the other way around?  What tuning did they use? Tantalizing questions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh4GRCdqwS8

C.P.E. Bach, Sonata in E Minor, Wq. 59 No. 1 (Excerpt); Kristian Bezuidenhout (Fortepiano)

But from a less historical standpoint, we as musicians need to have a much more practical approach to programming Bach’s instrumental music. I personally would not want to have to sit through a performance of all six violin sonatas—it’s too much of a good thing. Then again, while I say it’s less historical, it’s also in line with varied programming trends of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s something that’s gotten lost.

But why is history the measuring tape for programming, and not, say, some measure of emotional impact? If Bach’s music is so universal, could his music not be just as effectively paired thematically alongside someone like Schoenberg?

Absolutely. Working with period instruments myself, I’m not really in a professional position to be approaching Schoenberg or Webern or other 20th Century composers in my programming. But there have been other musicians and ensembles who have programmed Bach alongside others in a thematic manner with huge success. Ensemble Signal’s pathbreaking work in programming Bach alongside Steve Reich, Michael Gordon, and Helmut Lachenmann offered a fantastic insight into the manner in which Bach still holds sway as a compositional influence. In this light, Bach really sounds very modern as Reich doesn’t sound like Bach, but the other way around. The sensation in a way is very circular; a release from temporal specificity in programming shows a different side of the auditory experience of Bach’s music.

Are there still other programming alternatives?

Sure. Again, at the end of the day, programming should be integrated and varied and in a way reflect the manner not just in the way music is being performed played, but how it’s being thought of, be it from an emotional, intellectual, or educational standpoint. For instance, one of the great advantages of a harpsichordist’s training is the requirement to continually work with figured bass and use your ears to conjure an accompaniment out of nothing. Learning to extemporize, improvise and accompany—the very same things that Bach and Mozart had to learn at the keyboard—opens up the ears and the eyes to the manner in which a score is not a fixed item, but something to interact with. For me, it wasn’t just informative but decisive: playing continuo in a Lully opera changes forever the way you think about playing Marchand or D’Anglebert; playing fortepiano in the recitatives in Mozart’s “Figaro” completely reshapes one’s approach to the solo keyboard music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata in F Major, KV. 280; Kristian Bezuidenhout (Fortepiano) 

Similarly, in working with Bach’s vocal music and conducting a full St. Matthew Passion from keyboard for the first time, I really got a grasp of what it means for three hours of music to have a coherent beginning and end, and for all the detail in the middle to support the overarching story. Indeed, contrary to trends in the instrumental world, the vocal music of Bach has enjoyed a far more liberal range of approach and expression, and working with vocalists was really eye-opening as the potential for interpretation. I sincerely underestimated how deeply such a project would affect me, as the unanimity within the work is something that cannot be imitated in an instrumental program of the complete work-x of Bach. I mean by this that we can find tonal and structural unities in a cycle like the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord—I’m not denying for a second that they’re there—but nothing approaches the very careful, curated dramaturgy and narrative of something like the St. Matthew Passion.

Does Bach’s music suffer when his complete works are programmed?

By no means. That said, we are in danger of doing both Bach and his music a disservice if we’re not more imaginative about the ways they are presented. Sure Bach’s music can stand up on its own for an evening, but it potentially limits what we get out of it. There are so many sides to his music. Why should we constrain ourselves in showing them? ¶