Concert Review: Pianist Andrew Willis

A master of historical piano performance in concert at Rutgers Camden Campus

A musical gem in Camden is the summer noontime concert series held in the Mallery Room of the Fine Arts Building on the Rutgers University campus. The small room holds several instruments, including a reproduction nineteenth century fortepiano by Thomas and Barbara Wolf.

For the modern concertgoer, a fortepiano can sound rather subdued, but when Andrew Willis plays, he brings out the delicate colors, making the sound blossom. For the Ignaz Moscheles’ Characteristic tribute to the memory of Malibran, he started with pale pastel soft notes and added new colors as he built to the final cadence of the movimento appassionato with the sustaining pedal holding the dampers up as he built the glorious final chord. The result was like hearing several string players as they joined in a large chord. In this Willis showed the audience what has been lost of the delicacy of a fortepiano. If a pianist held the sustaining pedal that long on a modern piano, the result would be a muddy mess.

Willis, a Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is a sought-after performer of eighteenth and nineteenth century music and a regular performer in the Mallery Summer Concert Series.

He started his concert with the formidable Bach Partita in E minor, BWV 830 (1731), playing with a portato touch and surprising crispness that was more like Beethoven than Bach. His articulation and control were impressive – and his adherence to a strict rhythm did not prevent him from putting careful phrasing and expression in each voice. As he started the Sarabande, he played in a more delicate Bach style using a legato touch which melted into the expressive Air. He played the final Gigue in a dual interpretation since the score seems open to both a duple or triple meter. His ability to alternate from duple to triple allowed us to see the possibilities of interpretation, but the triple meter was the most convincing.

In the very long suite, Mr. Willis had a brief lapse of memory in the Tempo di gavotta, but artist that he is, he picked it up so quickly and smoothly that the bumps became just an interesting road hazard in a vivid interpretation of the partita.

Willis played a piece by John Field, a composer who does not often appear on programs of piano recitals.  The Grand Pastorale (1832) sounds like a nocturne by Franz Josef Haydn, had he written one. Within the piece are wild scales in the upper register which sometimes sounded almost tinny – but that impression may be due to the fact that I rarely hear fortepiano.

For the Chopin Ballade in A-flat major, Opus 47 (1842), Willis moved to the Bösendorfer grand piano and began the piece with masterfully voiced chords.  What a delight to hear the sort of control that Arthur Rubenstein demonstrated –aware yet nonplussed about the fireworks ahead, confidently letting the music unfold. By the end of the piece, Willis was playing with energy and thunder. The combination of delicate passages played with feathery control and the thunderous passages of the finale were like a summer day, starting with calm and ending in a colorful storm of sound.

[The Department of Fine Arts and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences present the Mallery Concert Series with Andrew Willis, Wednesday, July 3, 2019 at noon in the Mallery Room, Fine Arts Building, Rutgers University, 314 Linden Street, Camden.  Next on the series: Bice Horszowski, piano on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 at 11:20 a.m.]


Andrew Willis

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