The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Fortepianist Malcolm Bilson says keyboard players still lag far behind orchestral groups in promoting early music, period instruments and historical performance practices. Hear his upcoming FREE recital Sunday night of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven sonatas at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

September 21, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

As the early music movement gained momentum and acceptance from the 1970s through today, it has moved from the harpsichord to the fortepiano to turn-of-the century pianos; from soloists to ensembles; and from the Baroque era to the Classical era and beyond.

Keyboard artist Malcolm Bilson was always in the forefront of the push for historically informed performances with modern instruments and for the use of period instruments.

An iconic figure who teaches at Cornell University (one of his students was Trevor Stephenson, the director of the Madison Bach Musicians) and a prolific recording artist, Malcolm Bilson will be in Madison for a residency from Sunday through Tuesday. ALL EVENTS ARE FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

First, Bilson will perform a free recital of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven this Sunday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. His appearance is part of the University of Wisconsin School of Music’s Guest Artist Series.

Then on Monday, Sept. 26 at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Bilson will hold a piano master class. At 7 p.m. the same day in Morphy Hall Bilson will lecture on “Do We Know How to Read Urtexts Properly and What, If Anything, Do Instruments Have to do With It?”  Malcolm says the lecture is the subject of his old DVD “Knowing the Score”,  but almost all the examples are new and there is much more specific detail. He will have everything on Power Point, including sound examples.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. in Morphy Hall, Bilson will hold a master class for chamber ensembles and vocal/piano duos.  

For more about Malcolm Bilson, visit:

Bilson (below) recently granted an e-mail interview to The Ear:

What is the overall status of fortepiano studies right now compared to how they started? Is the fortepiano secure as a mainstream vehicle for performing and recording?

I don’t know how “secure” it is, nor how mainstream.  The truth is that the real road towards “mainstream” has not been in the piano world, but rather with the orchestras. By 2000, virtually all the important repertoire from Bach to Brahms had been investigated, performed and recorded (much of it many times over) by the so-called period instrument orchestras, revealing so much of those repertoires that had been hidden for well over a century.

And in the last decade or so mainstream orchestras such as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, under conductors like Simon Rattle or Roger Norrington have changed their styles drastically in performing works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

If today you want to buy a recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies, you will find about 60% on modern orchestras, 40% period orchestras.  If you want to buy Beethoven piano sonatas, on the other hand, is 1% period pianos too high?

Beethoven changed his style quite radically as the different pianos appeared during his lifetime, both the Viennese and English types of which he knew the best examples of the day.  Yet all of those pianos are very far away in aesthetic concept from the 1870 Steinway-type still being built today.

What are the special qualities that the fortepiano brings to such “mainstream” Classical repertoire as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert? What should listeners listen for?

The main expressive markings provided by all these composers are the ubiquitous slurs, these marks that tell us how to inflect the music.  All sources of the time tell us that it is the length of the notes that defines the expression, color and dynamic being important as well, to be sure, but in a secondary place.

The music of these composers was a “speaking” music, the music of the later 19th century changed into one of long singing lines, and that is the way Mozart and Beethoven are still mostly played today.  These are basically different aesthetics, each beautiful and expressive in its own way.

Instruments are of course “tools” — that is what the word means — but they were always designed in conjunction with the music being written.  The greatest pianos Mozart and Beethoven knew have never been surpassed for their ability to make small inflections between the notes – on Steinway-types such playing would sound choppy and insensitive, so is generally avoided in favor of smooth, connected lines.  I will be talking about all this in a lecture-demonstration Monday evening.

How did you arrive at specializing in the fortepiano? Did you come to it from the piano or harpsichord? Was there an Aha! Moment – perhaps a performer or a piece of music — when you knew you wanted to devote yourself to the fortepiano?

I don’t even like the word fortepiano.  Fortunately, we now have wonderful pianos (replicas and originals) from all the important periods of piano building – Walter, Stein, Graf, Broadwood, Erard, Pleyel, etc.  I like to think of myself and many of us who do “this thing” as pianists who play many types of pianos, as opposed to those who play a single type.

Would you like readers to know the instrument you will perform on? Would you like to comment on your program here and how or why you chose it?

The instrument I will bring with me is a typical 5-octave Viennese piano of the type Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven would have played and composed for.  (In the case of Beethoven the instruments began to expand in size and weight after 1800; the Third Concerto and “Waldstein” Sonata are the first pieces that need a larger compass.)

The first half of the program will have the Haydn Sonata in E Minor, Mozart’s Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman” (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, in the English version) and Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, K. 332.

The second half of the program is devoted to Beethoven – the Sonata in D Minor “Tempest,” Op. 31, No. 2, and the Sonata in E-Flat Major, Opus 31, No. 3. These will be presented in a manner quite different from what is usually heard today, in part because of the different musical possibilities on such a piano, in part due to a somewhat different musical approach to Beethoven’s music.  I will speak to the audience about this before playing the works.

What are your current and upcoming projects in terms of performances and recordings of solo works, chamber music and concertos?

I will be 76 next month, still in pretty good shape (with a creak here or there); I don’t have any recording projects in view at the moment.  I was incredibly lucky to record all the Mozart Piano Concertos with John Eliot Gardiner (below) back in the 1980s (a wonderful voyage of discovery for all of us!); then in the 1990s with six former students and colleagues I participated in a complete recording of the 35 Beethoven sonatas (including the 3 early Boon sonatas) on nine different period pianos. I have also recorded all the Mozart and Schubert solo sonatas on Hungaroton, and with some wonderful chamber music collaborations I feel that’s enough. There are plenty of CDs out there already, and it’s time for the next generation to pick up the ball and run with it.

My main “project,” therefore, at this period in my life is going around to music schools like the University of Wisconsin to talk to the young people. There is so much about this repertoire that is still waiting to be discovered through the instruments for which it was written; we’re only at the beginning.

Posted in Classical music

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