At a festival in Zichron Yaakov, pianist Malcolm Bilson will try to prove his contention that 300-year-old pianos can produce more faithful sounds than Steinways.
Let’s say you’re a pianist, or a devoted fan of classical piano music. And let’s say that to your ears, Steinway pianos are the best in the field. Would you be satisfied exclusively with a Steinway? The American pianist and musicologist Malcolm Bilson, for one, talking about how to choose a piano, offers the example of the person in charge of tuning the collection of antique pianos at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where Bilson is a professor of music. That piano tuner, he explains in a talk that can be found online, also does a better job of tuning modern Steinways than someone who specializes only in modern Steinways. It’s like a mechanic who deals only with Mercedes cars and thus knows less in the aggregate than a mechanic who is familiar with many different cars.
In regard to Mozart’s “expressive instructions,” as Bilson terms them, the key point concerns groups of sounds that are meant to sound connected, like a single “singing” line, as opposed to those that are to be separated. An illuminating example is the opening phrase of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. The composer’s direction to separate the first three connected notes from the next three can be executed nicely only on the fortepiano, Bilson notes and demonstrates. Whereas on the modern piano, the separation will sound clumsy, fragmented, “like a hiccup.”
Beethoven’s piano sonatas will also definitely benefit from being played on a period instrument, Bilson says in reply to another question. In the case of Beethoven, it’s crucial to choose the correct fortepiano, he points out, because there are vast differences between the first sonatas and the later ones (which were composed for very different fortepianos). Steinways or other contemporary pianos are not suitable for playing the sonatas, Bilson avers, one reason being that very brief powerful notes (sforzando), such as Beethoven calls for, cannot be effectively produced on modern pianos, on which the sound develops slowly.
Overall, Bilson says, there are more nuances of loudness in the fortepiano, though modern pianos are preferable in terms of color changes. However, what’s important in Mozart and Beethoven, he says, is not the changes of color but the articulations, as previously explained. “It is difficult to execute those changes on a modern piano,” he says.