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Mozart sonatas sparkle at Early Music fest

The marathon of antiquarian activity that is the Boston Early Music Festival continued at pace on Friday, with an organ mini-festival, more than a dozen Fringe concerts at venues throughout the city, a birdsong-themed performance by Ensemble Clément Janequin , and two programs at Jordan Hall, among other events. I attended the pair of Jordan Hall concerts, the first of which was a scintillating recital by Kristian Bezuidenhout and Petra Müllejans . The second was a performance by the medieval music ensemble Sequentia , which was not delivered as promised. But let's start with the scintillation.

Bezuidenhout is a young South African fortepianist and harpsichordist who has had a strong presence at this year's festival, playing in the BEMF Orchestra, and on Friday afternoon, he partnered with violinist Müllejans for a recital of three Mozart sonatas (K. 296, 379, and 454). On paper it seemed a rather straightforward program for a festival that celebrates lavishly researched traversals of the distant Renaissance and medieval past, and these particular Mozart works are typically served best in the company of contrasting repertoire. But with Bezuidenhout and Müllejans, none of this seemed to matter. The duo gave an extraordinarily supple and eloquent performance of these works, making each sonata feel sparklingly fresh and wonderfully vibrant.

It helped that one typically encounters the Mozart sonata repertoire performed on modern instruments, as violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis did this season in Symphony Hall. Bezuidenhout's 5 1/2- octave fortepiano has a smaller sound and softer edges than a modern Steinway grand, but it also has a flexibility and gentleness of tone that he used to maximum effect, playing with a graceful singing line in the opening Adagio of K. 379, and displaying uncommon freedom and spontaneity in the shaping of the sonata's sublime set of variations. Müllejans is a technically resourceful and keenly expressive player, and the duo, after some initial bumps in K. 296, found a seamlessly integrated style.

Later that evening, the festival had planned on presenting Sequentia in one of its signature projects, "The Rheingold Curse: A Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge from the Medieval Icelandic 'Edda.' " A theatrical adaptation of an ancient epic, "The Rheingold Curse" is a brainchild of Sequentia's brilliant director, Benjamin Bagby, a master of medieval music who reportedly captivated BEMF audiences in 2005 with his performance of some of the same material. Naturally, Friday night's program was eagerly anticipated but, alas, Bagby has been suffering from a bronchial infection and was instructed by doctors not to fly from Paris.

In place of the original program, four members of the ensemble performed a few isolated selections from "The Rheingold Curse," and attempted to fill the large gap left by Bagby's absence with a set of fascinating if somewhat monochromatic medieval ballads and folk hymns from Sweden. (The Swedish material was performed under the ensemble name Ulv. ) Agnethe Christensen and Lena Susanne Norin were the expert vocalists; Elizabeth Gaver deftly played the medieval fiddle; and Norbert Rodenkirchen tried to sew the disjointed evening together with solo medieval flute works, one of them performed on an intriguing piccolo-like instrument fashioned from swan bone.

Unfortunately, "The Rheingold Curse" without Bagby is simply not the same. As documented by a vivid Sequentia recording, Bagby's contribution is the expressive and thematic heart of this gripping and mysterious work, and no one else can comparably sing it. (In 2005, Globe critic Richard Dyer likened Bagby to a "one-man opera.") So his absence naturally transformed the evening. These things happen, but the way the festival handled the situation was sorely misguided. BEMF learned of Bagby's withdrawal 36 to 48 hours before the concert, according to a festival official, but neither ticketholders nor the media were notified. The news came out only when Bagby's manager made an announcement from the stage minutes before the performance.

BEMF should have alerted the press and the public about Bagby's cancellation due to illness, and about the complete remapping of the program, at the very least by posting an update on its website, in the same way that orchestras handle the withdrawal of a star soloist. Surely a large portion of the enthusiastic medievalists in the audience would still gladly have attended the event, but by keeping ticketholders in the dark, BEMF risked squandering some of the considerable good will it has built up among its loyal fans. It was a surprising misstep in an otherwise well-planned and well-executed festival.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall, Friday afternoon and evening