Early Music, Recital Review Print



Andrew Willis' UNCG Recital: Piano Is His Forte

September 5, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


What a delight it was, finally, to hear Andrew Willis play a fortepiano in a space appropriate for its delicate sound! On September 5, the strangely small Organ Hall of the UNCG School of Music was filled with attentive music lovers - it was standing room only.

Willis used a lovely Neuport fortepiano that is a replica of a Dulcken instrument built c.1815-20 and currently in the Deutsches Museum, Munich. A photo of the original was included with the performer's excellent program notes, which gave concise background for the recital's diverse and largely unfamiliar repertory. The intimate space allowed for maximum appreciation of the full range of colors and timbres. Most striking was the comparative lack of homogeneity among the notes on this six-octave Viennese instrument. Willis noted that "it preserves the clarity and lightness of the classic five-octave piano (of which Stein and Walter were the most famous makers) even as it foreshadows the warmth and power of the six-and-a-half-octave grand to come (of which Graf is the most widely admired exponent)." Many Triangle concertgoers will remember the series of three all-Beethoven concerts some years ago at Duke, in which Malcolm Bilson and four of his post-graduate students (including Willis) presented over half of the Beethoven Sonatas using four different fortepianos including the ones mentioned in the notes. From my seat, I had a clear view of the keyboard and much of the exposed action, with the striking of the hammers and up-and-down motion of the damper, operated by the pedals. This later operation produced a jingling like a tacky key chain, fairly constant but not too disruptive.

Once the foremost pianist-composers between Hummel and Chopin, Ignaz Moscheles is largely unknown to the casual music lover. Willis speculates that one reason composers such as Moscheles are now regarded as "second rank" is that "the resources of the six-octave fortepiano convey substance and effect which are difficult to realize on the more ponderous modern piano." The composer's Grande Rondeau Brilliant , Op. 43, with a dramatic opening, pregnant rests, very wide dynamic contrasts, and a comparably wide range of color contrasts, gave ample evidence of this. I thought there was a suggestion of the drone of peasant bagpipes here and there, and elsewhere there was a delightful filigree aspect to some of the scoring.

There were pre-Chopin arpeggios aplenty in John Field's Nocturne No. 4, in A (1817). Willis alluded to Field's apprenticeship in the Clementi piano firm. (Duke's Eddy Collection has two fortepianos built by Clementi.) His smoothly elegant playing brought out what Carl Czerny described as "that soft, quiet and melodious style of execution, (with) beautiful Cantabile." The last few treble notes were breathtaking gems.

Listening to Schubert's popular Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D.780), was like hearing them processed through a sonic kaleidoscope. Familiar turns of phase took on a wholly different garb from the sharply differentiated keyboard color. The first was mercurial, and the second featured a graceful lullaby in a barcarole rhythm that was interrupted by an ardent melody with a Hungarian flavor. The best-known piece - the third - featured a brilliant and insistent dance rhythm. The somber fourth is said to have been inspired by one of Bach's Preludes. The fifth was stormy with exciting dynamic contrasts. The Viennese fortepiano and Willis' subtle playing brought out the harmonic refinement of the melodious concluding number

Two Bagatelles, Op. 107, by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, proved to be delightful. No. 1 (Scherzo) was by turns playful and elegant and employed crossed hands. Listeners familiar with the popular Rondo all'ongharese from Haydn's 25th Piano Trio recognized an old friend in Hummel's Sixth Bagatelle in which that theme was frequently repeated.

Carl Maria von Weber's Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 70, is a rarity in both the concert hall as well as on recordings - as are any of his sonatas. Pirated recordings document Sviatoslav Richter's advocacy while a complete Arabesque set preserves Garrick Ohlsson's zeal for them. William S. Newman, in The Sonata Since Beethoven (3rd ed.), contends "that (Weber's) four big sonatas... progress steadily and conspicuously from one to the next" and that "... Op. 70 is a completely satisfying masterpiece." The old Master Musician Series biography, Weber , by William Saunders, notes that the last sonata "is entirely different from any of the preceding ones and is the most 'Weberish' of the four, ...being characterized as the 'Programme Sonata.'" Willis' notes give a précis of the program: "The first movement depicts the anguish of an individual pursued by melancholy and agitation, while the second represents a complete break with reality, conveyed by means of broken, irregular phrases, oddly incoherent harmonic progressions, and an obsessively circling trio." The first movement sounded stormy. Most striking was the second, marked Minuet: presto vivace ed energico; most un-minuet-like, it is dramatic and vigorous with some extraordinarily fast tempos and a lovely trio. The third movement has a nice, simple theme while the last, Prestissimo (based on an "exuberant tarantella"), gave ample evidence of Willis' technical mastery. It would be interesting to hear this sonata played on one of the Eddy Collection's Clementi pianos, and Willis would be a fine artist to record the work on an early type of instrument.