For music lovers, debuts of new instruments are always significant, and many presenters make big deals of them. We were therefore heartened on the evening of January 28 to find parking places in short supply outside Brendle Recital Hall, where UNCG’s brilliant fortepianist Andrew Willis in our view the best of the thoroughbred products of Malcolm Bilson’s Cornell stable was slated to inaugurate the latest addition to Wake Forest University’s arsenal of instruments, a stunning and stunningly beautiful fortepiano built by Rodney J. Regier (Freeport, Maine). All those folks weren’t there, we discovered we’re not sure where they were. But those who were present were handsomely repaid for their attendance.

According to Willis’s introductory program note, this new keyboard is “based on instruments made in Vienna by Anton Walter in the 1780s and 90s.” He continues, “Somewhat harpsichord-like in size and shape, the fortepiano’s precise, transparent sound results from its resonant wooden case, its parallel stringing in thin brass and iron wire, and its small, compact wooden hammers lightly covered in leather.” It is pedal-less, but it has “[h]ighly efficient dampers [that] permit precise control of the length of each note, clarifying the intricate and subtle articulations and groupings of notes… ” Beyond the musical aspects of this instrument (and others like it, whether “original” or copied from originals), there is of course some attraction due to the purely mechanical or, if you prefer, industrial nature of the “product,” which, as Willis writes, surely amazed listeners when the original device was new somewhat akin to the likely response of good Moravians to Old Salem’s Tannenberg organ, when it was installed nearby 205 years ago… His note ends, “A fine replica fortepiano offers us a window into another age, letting us experience 18th-century repertoire in its original context.”

Well, more or less. Brendle is an attractive hall, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine a venue like it being used for one of Walter’s fortepianos. Still, it was an incredible experience to hear this new instrument, particularly under the fingers of Willis, whom we’re richly blessed to have living and playing among us here, in Central NC. He looks a tad Mephistophelean, with his goatee and his shifting “do,” but his delight in the sounds he evokes is often evident. He merits the term “great performer” in ways that many bigger names manifestly do not, for he’s an artist of the highest order, and his service to music is always paramount. His program was clearly selected to show off the instrument’s many magnificent qualities, and it did so, but there was never any question about where Willis was coming from it was music first, last, and always, during the program.

Things got underway with a fine sonata by Muzio Clementi, a composer who, like Dangerfield, gets little respect. As played by Willis, it was a delight, and it helped us with re-entry to a long-past time it always takes a while to reorient the ears and the mind to smaller instrumental voices with softer, subtler sounds than we are used to, day to day, in our large concert halls. And it’s clear that, played like this, Clementi deserves more respect than he usually gets. More of his music from this artist would be most welcome in Winston-Salem or Greensboro or….

Haydn’s Fantasia in C was also revelatory, in part due to the astonishing, breathtaking clarity of the lines as they emerged from the fortepiano, but in part, too, due to the instrument’s quite remarkable power these things are of course relative and richness. Regier has been in this business for a long time, and he’s one of the best builders, but this instrument seems several steps ahead of some of the others we’ve heard. There’s a real bass end with great fullness of tone, and the registers, while still more distinctly colored than modern pianos (or, as someone once said, “real” pianos), don’t jolt the listener in ways that, say, fading sopranos sometimes do when negotiating “the break” between the chest and the head voice…

A Rondo by C.P.E. Bach brought considerable pleasure as Willis continued his Grand Tour of Music from the period that gave birth to this kind of piano, but it was Mozart’s Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint,” K.455, that turned out to be the big “find” in the first half of the program, largely because the theme (from Gluck’s Les Pèlerins de la Macque, ou la Recontre Imprévue) is so familiar Tchaikovsky used it in his “Mozartiana” Suite. That said, we half expected to hear offstage brasses and percussion at intervals during the piece, and Willis didn’t quite manage to replicate the string portamenti that often drench the Russian Romantic’s version of the tune…

The first half ended with a departure from the customary dedicatory recital norm as WFU soprano Teresa Radomski joined Willis for a thoroughly engaging performance of Haydn’s substantial cantata, “Arianna a Naxos,” H.XXVIb.2. The program’s “Text Translations” were “translations” only, but the print was large and the lights were kept up a plus. In addition to her work at WFU and with Winston-Salem ensembles, the soprano will be known to CVNCers for her appearances with Carolina Baroque, and she is a dyed-in-the-wool early music specialist. Her intense and powerful characterization brought the score to vivid life, and the presence of this cantata on the program was apt because these instruments didn’t exist as solo vehicles only instead, they were used for music-making with families and friends, and this performance exemplified that (increasingly lost) practice.

The second half of the program was devoted to music by Beethoven, who is known to have played a Walter instrument. Willis first commanded our attention during concerts of Beethoven sonatas with his brothers and sisters from Cornell, shepherded by Bilson, at Duke. He didn’t play the “Pathétique” on that occasion but did so here, preceded by the Rondo in C, Op. 51/1, and a virtually unknown Præludium in f minor (WoO 55), which led without pause directly into the sonata in a way that suggested Josef Hoffman, for there seemed to be a bit of improvisation to bridge the shift in keys. That, too, was a master touch from one of the great masters of our time, and it made the program yes, even such a special one as this truly unique and memorable. The single encore was a charming bagatelle by Beethoven, after which the grateful and enthusiastic audience slipped quietly and contentedly into the night. Bravo Willis, bravo Regier and Walter, and bravo to WFU and its wisdom in obtaining this magnificent new instrument.

As it happens, it was a momentous day to visit Winston-Salem and to enjoy good music on the radio, courtesy of WFDD, on the way into town. Alas, it was also the last day of mostly all-day music on WFU’s station, since the next day they joined so many other NPR outlets by shifting to mostly news and “public affairs” read “talk.” Word on the street is that they’ll continue to carry the Met broadcasts and, from time to time, concerts by the GSO and Winston-Salem Symphony, and they’re planning to continue “Performance Today” in the evenings, but otherwise…. Well, that leaves WDAV. Long may it flourish!