Coping with crisisThe third digital concert from Music for a Great Space took place in the living room of the performer, Andrew Willis. The recording of the UNCG professor playing his 1841 Bösendorfer piano featured music primarily from the first half of the 19th century, perfectly appropriate fare for the historic instrument.

The evening began with two works written by Frédéric Chopin (Poland, 1810-49) in 1841. The Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, is a dreamy, luxurious piece, with a flowing left hand and with the melody in the right. The Ballade in A-flat, Op. 55, was elegantly realized. Here and throughout the evening, Willis played with wonderful freedom, with what musicians call rubato; this type of playing breathes romantic spirit into the pieces, speeding up here, slowing down there.

One of the first things one noticed was the distinctive sound of the piano, so very different from the instruments of today. Willis spoke to the audience between sets, including comments about the Bösendorfer. The details of the construction of the piano are different from those of today. For one thing, modern instruments use hammers covered with felt; while the older ones use leather. And the strings in Willis’ piano are all parallel; not so in newer instruments. The difference in both color and volume can be partly attributed to these details.

Three pieces by Clara Schumann (Germany, 1819-96) followed. Willis stated, “I hear a lot of traits that were popular with virtuoso pianists of the day,” referring to the Notturno from Soirées musicales Op. 6, No. 2 (1836). The piece begins and ends gently but has some dramatic moments. Two Romances from Op. 21, one in in A minor and the other in F, were written in 1855, and showed her mature style. Willis brought out inner voices wonderfully in the first and played the second in an appropriately spikey style.

Willis pointed out that Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata was an influence on the Fantasy in F-sharp, Op. 28 (1833), by Felix Mendelssohn (Germany, 1809-47). The three movements are a tour-de-force of virtuosity, which Willis displayed with great aplomb. One can easily hear Mendelssohn’s “trademark” elfin character in the finale, which flies like the wind – what a wild ride!

Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, by Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1787-1827) concluded the program. It was the composer’s final piano sonata, written the year of his death, when he was almost completely deaf. Willis described the first movement as “stormy,” while the second (and final) movement is “consoling … .a set of variations with fantasy elements.”

The first movement is stern stuff, and it is difficult not to get lost in the counterpoint, the dueling voices. Beethoven does offer several moments of respite, however, where one can gather one’s wits together. Willis made the most of these dramatic contrasts.

The finale (Arietta) takes a different path: one that is ethereal and somber. The variations become increasingly frenetic until the energy is spent and a turn towards the sublime takes place. And for Beethoven, when music leads to ecstasy, the composer turns to trills to transport the listener to eternal bliss. Willis’ playing of this monumental work was glorious and revealed a musician with a depth of understanding and the commitment to bring the score alive.

As in previous MGS virtual concerts, a live question-and-answer session was held, wherein Willis fielded questions about the differences between this instrument and modern pianos, about the number of keys (not all pianos have 88), and about differences in playing a historic instrument versus a modern one. The session allowed the viewer to be “up close and personal” with the artist.

Finally, kudos to filming of the performance. It was terrific, sometimes showing the pianist in profile, sometimes focusing on Willis’ hands.