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[whitespace] Keys to the Past

Malcolm Bilson coaxed period sounds out of the San Jose Beethoven Center's 1827 fortepiano

By Scott MacClelland

WHILE MANY came to hear pianist Malcolm Bilson play Beethoven, others were there primarily to listen to the instrument. Last Friday (April 20), the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University hosted Bilson in the inaugural recital on its just-acquired 1827 Jakesch fortepiano, the only specimen from this maker now known to exist. For the Beethoven Center, this represents a major acquisition and a complement to its replica 1797 fortepiano.

The difference between the two instruments makes clear the rapid advancement of piano technology over the space of little more than two decades. The late-18th-century replica is more like a harpsichord with a hammer action installed. Its 66 keys span five and a half octaves. It has no pedals, but rather two knee-operated "moderators."

At 7-1/2 feet long, the instrument made by Mathias Jakesch offers 88 keys (more than seven octaves) and six pedals, including the novelty Janissary, which provides a drum stroke and cymbal crash simultaneously, and a bassoon stop that lays a strip of paper on the strings to create a buzzing effect.

As Bilson proved in a program of Beethoven sonatas and bagatelles, the instrument is in excellent condition for its age. In remarks from the stage, the pianist further observed that nearly every element of the Jakesch is original.

During the recital, a damper stuck a few times resulting in a twang. But for all intents and purposes, those assembled were listening to the real thing, the genuine sound of a piano that Beethoven himself would have played. Because of it, the Beethoven Center possesses an instrument that can do justice to the middle and late sonatas by its namesake.

One feature of the Jakesch that jumps out immediately is the inconsistent timbre from the bottom to the top of the keyboard. According to William Meredith, executive director of the Beethoven Center, this was intentional. In the 1820s, the ideal fortepiano had three voices: the bottom tones were supposed to imitate the bassoon, the top notes should be flutelike, while the clarinet sound was most desirable in the midrange.

But while the mid- and low tones sustained a warm resonance, the top notes decayed abruptly after being struck. Increased string tension would allow them to ring on. As Meredith explains it, instruments like the Jakesch typically carry only one-fifth the tension of their modern counterparts. The higher tension of today's concert grand allows the strings to resonate longer and provides that overtones will sustain a stronger and more consistent presence.

Moreover, the modern instrument can produce a far greater volume of sound. It is ironic, therefore, that the more an instrument sounds like its modern descendent, the more it suffers by comparison. It's not unlike struggling to take pleasure from a 78-rpm recording of, say, Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole when you already have knowledge of a CD of the same.

Well known as a fortepiano specialist, Bilson took an active role in helping the Beethoven Center acquire the Jakesch. It's state of preservation no doubt owes much to the fact that it remained under the same Italian family ownership for nearly 170 years, until 1997, when it was bought at auction by instrument dealer Edward Swenson of Trumannsburg, N.Y. Several donors to the acquisition, not least including Beethoven Center benefactors Irma and Ira Brilliant, secured the purchase.

For his part, Bilson made a charming impression with the Bagatelles, Op. 33 and Sonata in G Minor, Op. 49:1. In the first variation of the andante from the Sonata in E, Op. 109, Bilson floated a gorgeously phrased melody that seemed to capture the instrument's best qualities. Likewise, he got the juiciest effects in the second half of the Sonata in A flat, Op. 110, where Beethoven audaciously breaks old molds to build new forms.

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Web extra to the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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