The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Will electronic pianos eventually replace Steinway concert grands? Period pianist Malcolm Bilson thinks so. What does Jenny Lin think?

September 30, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Acclaimed period pianist Malcolm Bilson (below) was in town this past week for a residency at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

Known these days primarily as a fortepianist, Bilson (below) performed a beautiful and illuminating recital Sunday night of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that was a model of both clarity and expressiveness.

An outstanding scholar, on Monday night Bilson also delivered a lecture based on his DVDs about reading scores and music notation, especially in the Classical era.

But it was the master class for University of Wisconsin piano students that brought out Bilson, the seasoned and incisive teacher. He listened to students perform the opening movements of sonatas by Mozart (K. 576) and Beethoven (Opp. 101 and 110) and urged them especially to capture a sense of spontaneity and improvisation. He also stressed the importance of studying the score one hour for each hour you spend practicing at the keyboard, something the masters Chopin and Theodore Leschetizsky among others, also prescribed.

Bilson gave the students the choice of playing on a Steinway concert grand or his own fortepiano (below), so they could compare the action, sound and articulation. One preferred the older fortepiano, two the newer concert grand.

But Bilson, who said he enjoys provoking thought and disagreement, mused aloud at one point: “Do you really think Beethoven composed his sonatas dreaming of a Steinway concert grand that was 200 years into the future, as some people say?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered emphatically. “Composers write for the instruments they have at the time.”

He even predicted that one day the Steinway concert grand may also become a “period piano” as electronic digital pianos gradually replace acoustic ones.

Does that seem outrageous?

Well, you might want to remember that keyboard titan Martha Argerich often practices on an electronic keyboard.

You might also want to read and listen to an NPR story about and performance by pianist Jenny Lin (below).

She has recorded acclaimed albums (below) of Shostakovich and Mompou on a standard concert grand. (At bottom, she also performs Mompou’s haunting “Secreto” on a standard acoustic grand at New York’s “Le Poisson Rouse.”)

But then she turned around and recorded some of those same works, along with music by Gershwin, on an electronic piano, a Korg M3 (below).

The results on the electronic keyboard are interesting, and perhaps better than you might expect — especially if, like The Ear, you relish the touch and sound of the modern acoustic grand piano.

Anyway, here is a link:

Read and listen for yourself.

Tell The Ear what you think and hear:

Will the electronic piano some day replace the acoustic piano the same way the Steinway concert grand replaced Beethoven’s Broadwood fortepiano?

Posted in Classical music

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