Capturing Beethoven's contrasts
Is Beethoven early music? On paper, an all-Beethoven concert at the Boston Early Music Festival, as was presented by cellist Pieter Wispelwey and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on Friday, carries the same cognitive dissonance as hearing one's prom theme turn up on an oldies station. In practice, though, Beethoven's audacious talent was rendered a palpable presence.
The repertoire - the two opus 5 cello sonatas as well as the Variations on "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" - dated from 1796, when Beethoven, a young composer in a hurry, had made the acquaintance of the virtuoso cellist Jean-Pierre Dupont, performing the sonatas with Dupont for the King of Prussia. With Wispelwey adopting a lean tone and Bezuidenhout manning a copy of a 1790s Viennese piano (on the whole, more delicate than its modern counterpart), the increased contrast between gentle and thunderous revealed Beethoven's uncanny ability to marry Classical proportions to his own explosive sensibility. Opening with the second of the opus 5 sonatas, the G minor, the performance seized on the music's penchant for the sudden: shifts of tempo, bringing the line down to a hush before a thunderous attack, the kind of volcanic surprises that confounded and thrilled contemporary listeners.
Wispelwey varied his sound all the way from a distant keening to a bass-drum thump; playing from memory, his mastery allowed a bracing amount of moment-to-moment tonal and interpretive spontaneity without ever sacrificing the overall dramatic thread or tension. Bezuidenhout matched him, buzzing through Beethoven's show-off intricacies with groove and flair. Both musicians maintained an entertainingly physical stage presence - swaying, dancing - without seeming mannered or distracting.
In the Variations, the players shifted the mercurial timing toward humor, the heavy accents comic bluster, the lyrical threads sly asides. The F-major Sonata that fills out Opus 5 adopts a sunnier mien than the G minor, but Wispelwey and Bezuidenhout still found space for high-stakes drama, the two goading each other to ever more impudent virtuosity in the Rondo finale. For an encore, the duo spun out the Adagio from another Beethoven variation set, on another "Magic Flute" tune, "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen." It was a clement finish to an exhilarating concert, a poised postscript to Beethoven's punk-rock energy.