Pianist draws attention with instrument, talent

January 14, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Most piano recitals don't have the kind of activity at intermission that was seen Saturday, when Malcolm Bilson performed in the Candlelight Series in Columbia. Instead of filing out of Smith Auditorium at Howard Community College, dozens of people walked up on stage to look at Bilson's instrument.

It was not an ordinary grand piano that Bilson used for his all-Mozart program. In fact, it was not a grand piano at all. It was a replica of a late 18th-century Viennese piano -- built last year by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of Washington -- such as those Mozart himself performed upon. Instead of weighing approximately half a ton, it weighed about 150 pounds. It had no pedals, but knee levers to raise the dampers and a hand-operated Celeste Stop that brings a thin layer of cloth between hammers and dampers to create special soft effects.

This much smaller piano -- which is usually called a fortepiano -- is a much more intimate instrument than the modern piano. When it is played as beautifully as it was by Bilson -- the world's best-known performer on early pianos -- it is perfect for Mozart.

In the beloved A major Sonata (K.331), for example, Bilson was able to use the instrument's more distinct colors in different registers and its percussion stop to create clashing, cymbal-like effects in Mozart's imitation of Turkish music that would have been impossible on a modern instrument. And in the great C Minor Fantasy and Sonata (K.475 and 457), Bilson was able to attack the composer's demonic chromaticism and express his shattering lamentations with all the instrument's force without having to worry about violating the scale of the piece.

But -- and this is a most important but -- Bilson was able to do all these things not merely because he was playing an early piano but because he is a very good pianist who knows how to take advantage of the early instrument's expressive possibilities. Thus he was able to make the quietly brilliant endings of the sonatas in B-flat (K.570) and C Major (K.309) suggest something spiritual and free from earthly trammels. In the adagio of K.570, Bilson expressed its resignation without bitterness and in the opening allegro of K. 309 he set forth the music's brilliance without making it sound trivial.

The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore -- a sparkling rendition of Mozart's variations on the French nursery song,"A Vous Dirai-Je, Maman," which is better known here as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

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