We live in challenging times; not least on a practical level, where movement between countries is becoming increasingly fraught because of the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, the stars have aligned to allow Melbourne audiences to experience over two nights all five Beethoven piano concertos played by some of the world’s leading exponents of historically informed performance.

Kristian Bezuidenhout. Photo © Marco Borggreve

Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout is no stranger to our shores, having spent time here as a student and returning to perform with groups such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra as part of his wide-ranging international career. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is a perfect partner in this enterprise, bringing their elegant, energetic expertise to these diverse but well-loved works.

Reflecting the musical and technical developments that occurred during the 20-year trajectory of these concertos, Bezuidenhout played two different instruments. A 2008 instrument by Paul McNulty, modelled after a Walter & Sohn fortepiano, c. 1805 was used for the first concert which comprised the first three concertos, while the fourth and fifth concertos were played on an instrument conceived after a Conrad Graf fortepiano, c. 1817.

With its delicate sound and shorter compass, the McNulty forces players and listeners to reassess their expectations. Even with period instruments, the orchestra puts out an impressive body of sound that has to be carefully managed in order to let the solo instrument make its vital contribution. On this front Beethoven emerges as a dexterous manipulator of colours and textures.

Providing a majestic opening, the first concerto set the tone for all that was to follow. The Freiburgers delivered cohesion, clarity and rhythmic incisiveness without any fuss. Apart from the double basses (who interestingly stood behind the second violins) the players were seated, Gottfried von der Goltz leading with friendly authority. Bezuidenhout drew out the contrasts between the first movement’s scalic and melodic material, spinning a gossamer web of sound in the slow movement before enjoying the more jocular episodes of the rondo finale.

The “second” concerto in B Flat was actually Beethoven’s initial composition in the genre and hearing it after the first shows how quickly he was acquiring compositional finesse. In the opening it seems as though the composer is trying to impress with a lot of notes. Bezuidenhout made light of this passage work, going on to exploit the still rapture of the slow movement and urging his colleagues to revel in the rhythmically lopsided conclusion.

By contrast, the Sturm und Drang elements of the third concerto’s opening were sharply delineated, allowing Bezuidenhout to let the various emotional dimensions of the solo part emerge with subtlety. The hushed beginning of the second movement with its magical transition to E Major from the opening’s C Minor was a moment of breathtaking beauty reinforced by a superbly nuanced interpretation, while the bustling finale was played with a fairly straight bat.

Before entering the world of the fourth concerto, the second concert began with a strongly characterised account of The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op. 43. Apart from the occasional infelicity in the winds, this was an excellent demonstration of the orchestra’s own musical prowess.

To roll or not to roll? That is the question many ask at the beginning of the fourth concerto, but it was no surprise, given Bezuidenhout’s immersion in performance practice, that he did roll the first and subsequent chords of the famous solo opening. It made perfect expressive sense on the Graf copy he was playing. (It is worth recalling the upset occasioned by Melvyn Tan when he did a similar thing on a visit to Sydney late last century. The incident and the issues it raises are well chronicled in Neal Peres da Costa’s excellent book, Off the Record.)

Blessed with a clearer, stronger bass and generally greater projection, the Graf copy demonstrated the greater musical potential that technical developments had given composers by the early nineteenth century. A work like the fourth concerto with its considerable contrasts benefits enormously and Bezuidenhout took every opportunity to underline the increased dramatic capacity of his instrument, particularly in the poetically shaped second movement.

A Corialan Overture, bristling with vehemence and sparkling with detail, preceded the Emperor Concerto. Having come thus far on this pilgrimage, and benefitted from all its insights, it seemed like the nobility and grandeur of the opening and the optimism of the finale were also shot through with great humanity. (Fallible humanity was reinforced by some tuning difficulties at the upper reaches of the instrument.) Notwithstanding, Bezuidenhout and his colleagues used this most famous work to give voice to both the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. This feeling would not have been quite so evident had the audience not had the privilege of being immersed so persuasively in Beethoven’s sound world.

What a wonderful gift for these challenging times.