MALCOLM BILSON (b 1935 )
After gaining his BA in 1957, Malcolm Bilson went on a Fulbright Scholarship to Vienna where he studied with Grete Hinterhofer at the Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst. From there he went to Paris on a Harriet Hale Woolley Fellowship to study at the École Normale de Musique with Reine Gianoli, gaining his License Libre in 1960. Bilson then returned to America and studied at the University of Illinois with Stanley Fletcher and Webster Aitken, gaining his Doctorate of Musical Arts in 1968. He was then appointed to the staff of Cornell University in 1968, becoming a full professor in 1976 and the Frederick J. Whiton Professor of Music in 1990. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Bard College in 1991.
Bilson has combined a high-profile performing and recording career with one of teaching, specialising in the fortepiano. For Deutsche Grammophon Archiv he has recorded the complete piano concertos of Mozart with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, the recordings of K. 466 and K. 467 having the honour of appearing in Fanfare magazine’s ‘Classic Hall of Fame’ in 2001. Indeed, it was these recordings which persuaded many critics that Mozart’s concertos did not need a modern piano for a successful performance. A critic in The Gramophone stated: ‘Indeed, after hearing the D minor Concerto done with the incisive attack of the instrument for which Mozart conceived it, I doubt whether I shall ever want to hear it again on a spongy modern grand, whose softer attack and greater sustaining power make demands that are simply not consistent with the articulation Mozart specified and accordingly with the sense of the music.’ He continues in an even stronger vein: ‘Make no mistake: this performance is fully on the scale of any you will have heard, by the Fischers or the Serkins or the Brendels, and in some respects is a lot more dynamic and indeed dramatic than any of them.’
For Hungaroton Bilson has recorded the complete piano sonatas of Mozart and has been recording the complete Schubert sonatas for the same company. For the Claves label Bilson and six graduates of Cornell University’s doctoral programme in Historical Performance Practice have recorded the complete Beethoven piano sonatas on various instruments. Bilson feels how important it is that the decay of sound on the fortepiano happens so much more quickly than on a modern instrument and that Beethoven was constantly trying to find ways of extending it in his writing. He also feels that the modern piano cannot deliver the type of sforzando that Beethoven envisaged. A review of one of the discs on which Bilson is the performer stated: ‘Whatever the instrument, I have rarely heard these sonatas played more authoritatively. Technique is absolutely secure, tempi (except for slow movements) are precipitous, and textures are luminous…I cannot bestow enough praise on this release. Bilson’s playing is not only brilliant; it also marvellously and poignantly conveys Beethoven’s love for and dissatisfaction with the pianos of his day.’
Bilson is one of the foremost fortepianists of his day, an artist whose rare combination of musicology and performance style delivers revealing and thought-provoking performances of some of the milestones of the Classical repertoire.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).