Andrew Willis really likes keyboards — both owning them and playing them. On Friday night at the University of North Carolina Greensboro Recital Hall it was an 1841 Bösendorfer, an instrument somewhere between a modern grand and an early fortepiano. The hammers are leather-covered and there is no metal plate, which would come with later instruments. A modern instrument might have provided a bolder and more brilliant sound, but this period instrument's particular makeup allowed for the color and clarity with which composers of the day would have been familiar.
The entire evening was devoted to Mendelssohn — perfectly suited both to the instrument and Professor Willis' temperament. As Willis accurately points out in his illuminating program notes, the keyboard works of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), with a few notable exceptions, are often dismissed as second-rate works. Willis' program helped prove otherwise.
Beginning with a relatively unknown set of six character pieces (Op. 38), from the famous Songs Without Words, Willis began to explore some of the nooks and crannies of this intelligent and influential composer. Willis immediately established his music making abilities at a very high level as he dove into what pianist/pedagogue David Dubal calls "the world of the Victorian parlor." Many of Mendelssohn's smaller compositions begin as if the piece were continuing a conversation that was not fully completed from a previous encounter. This is certainly true of these little gems, and Willis' playing invited the audience into the aesthetics of the 19th century.
The Variations in E-flat, Op. 82, is a set of five variations that take the form of several different characters. The Fantasy in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, is a three-section affair that features a lot of arpeggios, which on this instrument sounded positively harp-like. In these works and throughout the evening, Willis played with great finesse coupled with wonderful sensitivity. The technically difficult passages were tossed off with decorum and just the right amount of passion.
The second half of the program began with the famous Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, a work that was penned when the composer was only 15! What a marvelous composition this is. It contains many of the characteristics that would become hallmarks of Mendelssohn's style, especially that famous elfin quality, which Willis portrayed in a sprightly fashion.
The seldom-heard Six Children's Pieces, Op. 72, revealed a composer who was also a pedagogue, designing well-crafted, but not too difficult, high quality pieces for youngsters. The Preludes and Fugues may have fallen out of fashion, but Willis chose to perform Op. 35, No. 6, in G-flat. One can easily hear Mendelssohn the organist and Bach devotee, although the fugue subject, with its opening ascending triplet filigree, is really only a romantic nod toward the Baroque genre. Willis' facile fingers were easily up to the task.
The evening concluded with the Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, which many believe to be Mendelssohn's best piano composition. The D minor theme allows for a certain solemnity, and the opening theme is positively Lisztian in its harmonic adventurousness. But the work is pure Mendelssohn, with brilliant and virtuosic sparks throughout.
Willis, with his sensitive, lyric playing and with virtuosity to burn, certainly makes the case that Mendelssohn needs to be re-thought in this, his second centenary year. It does seem to be true that his chromaticism is more tidy than say, Chopin or Schumann, with dissonances resolving in the way the listener expects, and even when the music veers away from the expected path, the composer is able to make it sound all so correct. But the elegance, sense of intimacy and fun fantasy make Mendelssohn's music worthy of more frequent performance.