Malcolm Bilson

Malcolm Bilson Plays Dussek, Cramer & Haydn

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The Viennese fortepiano of Anton Walter and its ilk -- agile, colorful, and bright -- has predominated among recordings of Classical-era music on the instruments for which it was written. But there was a competing group of manufacturers in London whose instruments sounded quite different, and in fact closer to the modern piano: loud, percussive, physical. The English pianos were of obvious significance in the careers of both Haydn and Beethoven, who were fascinated by them; Beethoven even had one shipped all the way across the continent to Austria (which must have been quite an undertaking in those days). Veteran keyboardist Malcolm Bilson, one of the performers who began promoting the fortepiano in the first place, here takes up the cause of the English version, playing a contemporary replica of an instrument by the firm of Longman & Clementi. The music he chooses, from composers who were residents of London for a greater or lesser length of time, is ideal. The Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 44, "Farewell," of Jan Ladisav Dussek is the real find here; written a decade in advance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26, "Les adieux," it clearly inspired the later work. It is in the same key, displays thematic links, and even contains a passage similar to the "Lebewohl" (Farewell) motive in the Beethoven work. Listening to composers like Dussek and Clementi makes the Beethoven style less apt to seem as though he fabricated it out of whole cloth, and this has never been more true than with the present release. The Variations on "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen wünscht Papageno sich" from Mozart's Magic Flute of J.B. Cramer make for a fine demonstration of the piano's technical capabilities, but the final work on the program offers Bilson's most radical ideas. He reinterprets the Haydn Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob.. 16/52, as a virtuoso "English" work, with high drama and a lot of the passagework remade into free-tempo quasi-improvisatory stretches. It's quite a surprise, but it makes sense; Bilson, who has the ability to rethink music without being in the least flamboyant about it, takes you into the music in an assured way. The only complaints are ancillary. The hour of music on the disc is not ungenerous, but given the presence of Muzio Clementi as the manufacturer of the original piano it might have been good to hear some of his music as well. And the sound, despite the use of the legendary Glenn Gould studios in Toronto as the venue, is off; it's mushy and boxy, and it seems to strangle the powerful tones of builder Chris Maene's instrument. This is nevertheless an exciting disc, showing that Malcolm Bilson has not lost his ability to redefine the terms of Classical-era performance practice.

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