Why Pianos From Mozart's Era Are Better Than Ours

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.

The Mozart family c. 1780.

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 a telephone interview, Bilson says he has always liked pianos of different kinds, from different periods, and that he has deep reservations about the sweeping success of what he calls the “Steinway formula.” The veteran “Mozartian” – Bilson was born in 1935 – who is a pioneer of the Early Music School of performing classical works on period pianos, will be one of the participants in the Toujours Mozart festival being held at the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel in Zichron Yaakov (Jan. 21-23).

One of the works to be played at the event, which marks the 260th birthday of the genius from Vienna, is Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E Flat Major. Bilson will be joined in this piece by his pupil-colleague Zvi Meniker, an Israeli musician. The two will play the work on fortepianos, reconstructions of late 18th-century instruments originally made by the renowned Viennese piano maker Anton Walter (1752-1826).

Malcolm Bilson.

I asked Bilson whether “authenticity” in the choice of an instrument is a value for him. Is the fact that Mozart himself used a certain piano (fortepiano) decisive in this regard?

It’s not authenticity that interests Bilson. People who share his approach, he says, base their interpretation of a work on the aesthetic that influenced the composer in his time, be it Mozart, Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. He notes that he has written a great deal about how to read the performance notations that composers (mainly Mozart) added to a work. “Understanding those directions is based on an understanding of the aesthetic of the period in which the composer was active,” he explains.

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.”

Live fortepiano vs. recorded fortepiano

Many listeners, including those who are fond of the sound of the fortepiano, will agree that there is a significant difference between hearing the instrument on recordings, on which it has a fine sound, and hearing it in a concert in a big hall. To people who grew up with the tremendous sounds of a Steinway, for example, the fortepiano might sound anemic, lacking presence that enables one to discern subtleties of performance. Is it permissible to solve this problem by means of amplification?

To begin with, Bilson scoffs at the word “permissible.” “Do I ‘allow’ amplification?” he asks in response. “I ‘allow’ anything, if it works.” Amplification has been tried on many occasions, he notes, and turns out not to work. However, he adds, “the question itself derives from a mistake,” from the assumption that Mozart’s piano lacks sufficient power. Bilson notes that when Mozart wrote enthusiastically to his father, in 1777, about his favorable impression of a new fortepiano, designed by Johann Andreas Stein, he did not say it was because Stein’s sound was “louder.”

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.

I put similar questions to the Israeli keyboard artist and musicologist Zvi Meniker (who plays harpsichord, fortepiano and harp). Meniker, who lives in Germany, is the artistic director of the festival. To my question of how to choose an appropriate fortepiano on which to play Mozart, and whether an “authentic” instrument such as Mozart was familiar with is preferable in every case, Meniker replied, “We know very little about what Mozart was familiar with. It’s not even certain that ‘his’ piano, which is on display in Salzburg, was actually his.” He adds, “I try to familiarize myself with as many instruments as possible from Mozart’s time. If there is an instrument that does more for the music, that is the instrument I will prefer.”

Meniker is adamantly against the use of amplification for performing Mozart concerti. The pianist in these cases is “first among equals, one soloist among several,” he observes. The sections in which the whole orchestra plays are the most powerful, whereas in the piano’s solo parts the orchestra falls silent and acts as accompaniment. “With the modern piano, this important balance of forces is stood on its head, because it is an instrument that’s built to do battle, and honorably, with a large orchestra. There is no such battle in Mozart’s works,” Meniker explains.

He notes also that highly resonant acoustics, such as often exist in churches, are not appropriate for most of Mozart’s compositions, of for most of Bach’s music, either. “Most of the Baroque churches were not very resonant, as they were covered with arches, textiles and wood paneling, and the same holds for the Gothic churches in the Baroque period,” Meniker points out. Furthermore, “The churches in Leipzig sounded completely different in Bach’s time than they do today, after all the Baroque ornamentation was removed from them.”