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.
Symphony guide: Mozart’s 38th – ‘Prague’
In the third in his symphony series, Tom Service goes back to 1786 Prague and Mozart’s 38th symphony, in which you can hear the composer straining at the limits of what his orchestra, and the form, can do.
The 30-year-old Mozart hadn’t written a symphony for three years when he started composing a new piece for Prague at the end of 1786, the Bohemian city where The Marriage of Figaro was going down much more of a storm than it had in Vienna.
Since the Linz Symphony of 1783, Mozart had pushed himself as a composer and musician in all possible directions: he had incarnated pretty well his own genre of the piano concerto and had already brought it to astonishing heights; as an opera composer, he was embarked on those epoch-making collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, starting with Figaro; and in the six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, published the year before, he challenged himself – and his listeners and performers – to attain a new kind of chamber-music consciousness. All that, and he had begun seriously to investigate earlier Baroque repertoires.
In the Prague, you hear the effect of all these expanding musical horizons on Mozart’s idea of what a symphony could be. This is really the first of Mozart’s symphonies – and he had written at least 36 before (no. 37 is a misnomer) – in which Mozart transforms the social and entertainment functions of a piece of grand orchestral music into signifiers of a different kind of discourse. In virtually every bar of this piece, you hear him straining at the limits of what his invention, his orchestra, and the symphony can do.
Some crazy facts before we get down to the counterpoint. The Prague has three movements rather than the by then conventional four; Mozart does without the minuet because of the scale of this symphony’s first movement and the andante; the tune at the start of the finale is a quote from The Marriage of Figaro, exploding the little duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II into a dazzling presto that’s by turns coquettish and muscularly dissonant; the slow movement is the most operatically lyrical and emotionally varied he had yet composed in a symphony; and the first movement starts with the most expressively extreme slow introduction to a symphony in the history of the genre.
Read on here:
W.A Mozart, Jupiter symphony on period instruments.
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen
Wim Winters plays Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue KV 394 on clavichord.