As Real as it Gets: Malcom Bilson at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 19, 2009

Think of a Ferrari rolling down I-95, speed limited by traffic to 85 miles per hour or so, able to express its inner Ferrari-hood only by changing lanes and spurting into gaps wherever it can, mostly sitting implacably at the modest speeds it can attain. That’s what a lot of pianists sound like when playing the Kings of Klassical, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on a Steinway in a big hall. They have to scale down the howitzer sound of the piano to avoid inflating the music’s rhetoric to Romantic levels, thus muting everything about the performance, especially if the sound is dissipating across hundreds and hundreds of people. Audiences may wonder at the pianist’s skill and the general form of the music, but there’s no thrill.

Now think of an Alfa Romeo roadster winding down a mountain road, the convertible top down, lush vistas popping up around every turn. The car doesn’t boast as much power, but it hugs the road and responds immediately to input from the gas or wheel; particularly with a skilled driver, ’round every corner is a thrill and a sight to see at once. That’s what Malcom Bilson sounded like playing Haydn and Mozart on a fortepiano modeled on an 18th-century Viennese instrument in the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday.

Rather than just play the notes, Bilson attempts to perform music in the way its composers would have, an approach variously referred to as period performance, historically informed performance, authentic performance, and probably a couple other things I don’t know. On Thursday, not only did he have at his disposal an instrument in the style of those Haydn and Mozart might have played, he also had Strathmore’s English Broadwood piano, of an 1850s vintage, to play Schumann and Chopin. As a bonus, the Music Room of the Mansion seats just over a hundred people, so Bilson didn’t need to worry about whether his sound would reach the far corners of some vast hall; he could just play the instruments and go for broke.

Which he did. The lighter, more immediate action of the Viennese fortepiano, and the quicker decay of sound than on your classic Steinway, both allowed and demanded faster-than-usual tempi, and Bilson obliged with gusto, especially in the outer movements of Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob. 34. (Note to readers: This is where the car analogy above breaks down, since M-Billy sped along faster than most of the Ferrari playas.) The sense of an instrument being pushed to its limit helped Bilson make the swings and jumps in the first movement’s development section as surprising as they must have been in the 18th century. Bilson’s easy flow in the Adagio slow movement brought out Haydn’s playful habit of doing something harmonically outré and immediately veering back to normal — I imagined a cheeky “Did I do that?” smile on his face. The finale simply sparkled, a cheery conclusion.

After a pure-fun, palate-cleansing set of variations on a theme from the Magic Flute by Johann Baptist Kramer, Mozart’s Sonata no. 12 in F, K. 332, sounded positively lush. The first movement showed that Bilson was determined to continue going fast, so that runs and turns that sound delicate on a Steinway felt fueled by adrenaline. Bilson took the long, winding melody of the Adagio at a brisk pace and kept it up even as Mozart added ornaments and accoutrements to it, resulting in hold-your-breath chains of notes held together by the composer and performer’s awareness of the melody. In the keyboard-spanning runs and ever-shifting harmonies of the finale, Bilson explored all of the colors of the fortepiano, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, Virginia, from delicate papery notes up top to a tangy, guttural sound from the bass notes; the diversity of sound, lacking in the modern Steinway, made the movement feel more expansive than usual.

After intermission, Bilson switched seats to the Broadwood, which was rebuilt by Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg. Powell contributed an entertaining program note about the rebuilding process indicating that its dampers “really did not damp very well.” (The note also included the sentence “It is my firm belief that contrary to some well maintained myths, there was no great secret varnish used on old piano soundboards.” I want to hear a rebuttal from the maintainers of this myth now.) Regardless of its insufficiencies, the piano worked beautifully in the works by Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin that Bilson essayed.

The Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) don’t get the same recital love as some of Schumann’s other themed sets of short pieces (Carnaval, Kinderszenen, et alia), which seemed mystifying after Bilson’s performance. Waldszenen has the same Eusebius-vs.-Florestan action, the same careful balance, the same feeling of a narrative progression in the right hands, with perhaps some surface brilliance traded for contemplativeness. Bilson showed that he enjoys this work, even reciting the thanatophilic poem by Friedrich Hebbel that precedes “Verrufene Stelle” (“Accursed Spot”) in the score; that piece chilled, but Bilson made “Freundliche Landschaft” (Friendly Landscape) just as vivid in its cheerfulness. “Vogel als Prophet” (“The Bird as Prophet”) came off especially well, the poor damping leaving the fragmented melodies reaching in sound for their completion, Bilson working the sound to achieve the maximum possible effect.

Unlike the rest of the program, Bilson’s concert-closing readings of three miscellaneous Chopin pieces did not leave me with renewed amazement at the achievements of the composer, which I hope the reader realizes is praise by faint damnation. They were fine performances that let the pianist be more of a modern-style virtuoso, reminding us all that, while historically informed performance scholarship provides invaluable insights and enlivens concerts, skills are what pay the bills, son.


I’m tired of there being several numbering systems for Haydn’s piano sonatas. Having one numbering system is essential to making Haydn’s piano sonatas as popular as they should properly be, since people need to be able to, you know, talk about the same piece in casual conversation. As it is, I have trouble communicating which one I mean—”You know, that big C major one? I think it’s 60 in the Landon numbering, 50 in the Hoboken?” This is insupportable. If anyone has a good argument for why I shouldn’t use the Hoboken numbering, let me know.


Did you see what I did there in the last line of the review? Did you? Yeah. Also, I would like to note that I do not endorse driving 85 on I-95. I was just going for an illustrative image there.

It took me 1 hour and 10 minutes to get from College Park to Rockville on Thursday. After Bilson started playing Haydn, I didn’t think about that trip again for the rest of the night. That’s how you know a good concert: It makes you forget about the vagaries of the Beltway.

The Strathmore program listed Chopin’s dates as (1810-1049), which makes him -761 years old upon his death. I had not previously heard of the curious case of Frederic Chopin, but I will investigate further.

Edited: Due to ambiguity in the program note, this review originally attributed the rebuilding of Strathmore’s Broadwood to the Wolfs. The actual rebuilder was Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg, as is now reflected above.

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One Comment on “As Real as it Gets: Malcom Bilson at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 19, 2009”

  1. Sam Powell Says:

    I loved your review above, although I am no longer with Piano Craft. I think the varnish comments were made by piano forte builders to steer the competition in the wrong direction. In my opinion it was misinformation of a devious nature. Thanks for setting the record straight as to who the rebuilder was. That was a fun project. It is actually an honor to be mistaken for the Wolfs, who have a world famous reputation, but it is also nice to see one’s efforts still reaping musical rewards. You can find my current contact information at

    Can I get the name of the writer of this review? I would like to give him credit for a quote of two.

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