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Keyboard in Limbo

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MALCOLM BILSON

at the Scottish Rite Cathedral

May 5

Although Bach is said to have heard an early prototype of the fortepiano when he visited Frederick the Great, it apparently made little or no impression on him, for he never wrote for the instrument. Bach was an old man near the end of his life at that point, but I suspect his lack of interest had a lot to do with the quality of those early instruments.

Some 30 years later the young Mozart wrote to his father about the wondrous fortepiano, and then proceeded to order one for himself from the Vienna firm of Anton Walter. Most Mozart keyboard works before this time were conceived, written, and played on the harpsichord, though we rarely, if ever, hear them performed on one today. The harpsichord plucked its strings with a series of quills, which meant that once a key had been depressed there was no dynamic variation possible by touch alone. But the fortepiano struck its strings with leather-covered hammers, making it possible for the performer to vary dynamics by how hard (forte) or soft (piano) his or her fingers depressed the keys. It is in this respect alone that the fortepiano is the forerunner of the modern grand piano, which operates on the same fundamental principle but is constructed very differently and has a very different sound.

The initial response on hearing a fortepiano is almost inevitably disappointment, since it is the modern piano that is so firmly rooted in our aural memory. One who hears a harpsichord for the first time can immediately sense that this instrument is preferable to the grand piano for Baroque music because the two are different sound worlds. And even the untrained ear will detect the brilliance of line that can be achieved on a Baroque violin that is simply not possible on its modern counterpart. But the fortepiano? When I heard my first one I was reminded of the sound we got when we put thumbtacks on the hammers of old uprights in school practice rooms as a practical joke.

Many people who have embraced virtually every other aspect of the early-music movement draw the line at the fortepiano. It has a unique sound, to be sure. But it's enough of a hybrid between a harpsichord and a modern piano to be thought of as an instrument in limbo--which it is.

I admit that until I heard quality fortepiano reproductions meticulously kept in tune and played by first-class performers, I was not convinced that exhuming the instrument served much purpose. The problem has been that most performers don't know what to do with the fortepiano or with the music they perform on it (three exceptions that immediately come to mind are David Schrader playing Mozart and Anthony Newman and Steven Lubin playing Beethoven). There are two extremes. Those who come from an early-music background approach the fortepiano as a late harpsichord and use more mechanical methods of dynamic variation. Those who come from a modern-piano background approach the fortepiano the way you would a Toyota after you've been driving a Rolls-Royce. The first approach usually makes for uniform, unexciting performances of a decidedly gray nature, the second tries to push the instrument beyond its capabilities.

Malcolm Bilson has made an extraordinary international career for himself by trying to minimize the differences between the fortepiano and the modern piano. The reproductions he has used create a sound that's close to that of the modern piano, and his technique is the same in principle as that of a modern pianist. The result is that people all over the world--rightly recognizing that what Bilson does is not far from what they are used to--are saying, "Maybe the fortepiano isn't so bad." But the true fortepiano has quite a different sound and requires quite a different technique. And why play a fortepiano at all if your point is simply to emulate what you could do better on a modern grand?

That was the main question I had after hearing Bilson in a rare recital, sponsored by, of all unlikely organizations, Early Music From the Newberry Library. Not that I'm faulting Newberry; its booking of Bilson--like Chamber Music Chicago's booking of John Eliot Gardiner last season--was related to the artist's enormous celebrity as a representative of the early-music movement. Yet neither performer applies historical principles when he performs that repertoire; just because you play a fortepiano or conduct a period-instrument ensemble does not automatically mean you are interested in historically informed performances. Both Bilson and Gardiner appear to be popular precisely because they pay lip service to the movement, while giving the public basically what it's had all along. That may help sell records, but what does it do for the music?

Bilson performed on a five-octave fortepiano, apparently meant to serve as a copy of Mozart's own Walter fortepiano. He began with the Haydn Sonata in G Major (Hob. 39), a mostly clean and deliberate but decidedly slow performance. The instrument was out of tune from the start (and wasn't tuned during intermission), and Bilson made a note slip in the short cadenza that closes the first movement. By the second movement adagio, the octaves were painfully out of tune. Bilson's tempo in this movement was much the same as it had been in the first. Things did pick up for the prestissimo finale, during which Bilson's technique was clean, though his overplaying brought an annoying buzzy sound out of the instrument--fortepianos are not meant to be played so harshly. Overall this was pretty pedantic and uninteresting Haydn, despite--or perhaps because of--Bilson's idiosyncrasies.

Far better suited to Bilson's style were the Seven Bagatelles op. 33 of Beethoven, which were played much more smoothly and with a good sense of playful syncopation and humor throughout, though even here there was some buzzy banging at the end of the scherzo. The andante was the most successful of the seven, but here too there was some overplaying. Still, there were many enjoyable moments in the set.

Most of the program was devoted to Mozart: the Fantasy in C Minor (K. 475), the Sonata in C Minor (K. 457), and the Sonata in C Major (K. 309). The fantasy was exceedingly slow, ponderous, and harshly played. The Sonata in C Minor was more of the same. Bilson seemed to feel a need to bang out themes with a sledgehammer (very much like Andras Schiff) and continually overplayed his left-hand octave passages, making the instrument buzz away. The pattern was repeated in the C Major Sonata.

Bilson's Mozart playing tends toward a choppy sound that has little sense of the line, grace, or charm so characteristic of the master. Where were those beautifully lyrical phrases? Mozart's fortepiano music works very well on that instrument precisely because of the almost bell-like quality that can be brought to the quieter passages--rarely the case in Bilson's playing.

Bilson doesn't seem to realize that each of the three composers on his program, though using the same musical vocabulary, developed a unique voice within that vocabulary. Bilson used a Beethovenian sense of tension and drama for the earlier Haydn and Mozart, which is not only totally inappropriate but totally uninteresting. If that's how Bilson thinks this music should sound, that's obviously his privilege--but then he's definitely in the wrong camp, given that his reputation is that of an early-music enthusiast, and he's using the wrong instrument to realize that conception.

After three Mozart works centered in C, what do you do for an encore? Another Mozart work in C, of course: the slow movement of the Sonata in C Major (K. 330). Terry Riley would have loved it, but I had a dramatic case of key claustrophobia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Mitchell.

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