Music Review

Bilson plays with history to ‘restore’ Schubert sonatas

WESTON — “This is a dangerous enterprise,” Malcolm Bilson announced. The pianist was referring to finishing music Franz Schubert left unfinished, but he might have meant the whole process of bringing chronologically old music into the present. Bilson’s recital— opening a Chopin Symposium at the Rivers School Conservatory, but covering a range of composers — percolated with historiographic paradox, the way an incomplete record is both symptomatic of antiquity and an irresistible temptation to fill in with modern conjecture.

Bilson’s restoration project was three incomplete Schubert sonata movements. Two could be wound up according to classical formal tenets; Bilson bound off the threads with agreeable taste. The D. 346 Allegretto, widely assumed to be the finale to the D. 279 C major Sonata, was suitably jaunty and bumptious; while Bilson’s completion of the Allegro of the D. 571 F-sharp minor Sonata slipped in with unassuming logic.

The Menuetto from the D. 840 Sonata requires more conjecture. Schubert draws the music into a harmonic topiary maze without any hint of an exit; Bilson’s solution was a bit of chromatic side-stepping, slipping through a gap in the hedge. The instrument, too, was a reconstruction, a copy of an 1824 pianoforte. The difference in sound — less sustain, more buzz in the strings — was especially expressive in D. 571’s moodiness, Bilson enveloping the rustling sounds in an opalescent haze of pedal.


Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 2 Sonata took that pedaling to the extreme, creating great clouds of reverberation. Bilson recalled how such pedaling — based on hints left by Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s student — created sonic mud when he first tried it on a modern piano, but on the fortepiano, the historical suggestion made Beethoven modern: non-linear, abrupt qualities dominated, ideas caught in resonant spirals until suddenly breaking clear.

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The pianoforte’s variability — especially the way that, at softer volumes, it might as well be a different instrument — fueled Robert Schumann’s Op. 82 “Waldscenen” suite; Schumann’s frequent repetitions became the same scene viewed from different angles, or the difference between an experience and its memory. Bilson’s Chopin set — the Op. 51 G-flat-major Impromptu, the Op. 50 No. 3 C-sharp-minor Mazurka, the Op. 34, No. 1 A-flat-major Waltz — banished Chopin’s dreamy reputation in favor of corporeality, the pianoforte’s more audible mechanism putting the music in the physical present.

Bilson’s encore, Fanny Mendelssohn’s “O Traum der Jugend” (“O dream of youth”), was a gentle storm that left one instinctively filling in a presumed autobiographical subtext. But the music doesn’t say; as with history itself, it’s the omission that pulls you in.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@