This past Wednesday night, piano faculty member Andrew Willis presented an all-Beethoven recital. There are countless recitals every semester in the music building, but recitals from faculty members are a special treat. Dr. Willis has been a Professor of Music at UNCG for many years, and he teaches performance on not just piano but many keyboard instruments, including harpsichord and other period instruments. The all-Beethoven program of his recital demonstrated Dr. Willis’s attention to detail as well as his great talent as a pianist.
The program consisted of four pieces, alternating between short, earlier compositions and longer, later works. Dr. Willis began with Variations on “Rule, Britannia,” a short piece that Beethoven composed in 1803. “Rule, Britannia” is a British patriotic song, composed in 1740 and associated with the Royal Navy. Beethoven adapted this familiar melody for the theme of the piece and evolved it considerably through a series of five variations.
The piece is short, with the theme and all five variations fitting in a time span of about five minutes, so each section is brief and stated clearly. Willis played with a great understanding of the contrasting variations. Though the piece was brief, it contained many styles and tempos, and Willis did transition through each smoothly.
Next was Beethoven’s 28th Piano Sonata in A Major. Composed in 1816, this piece is considered the first of Beethoven’s latest period, where his themes and forms are long, complex, and experimental. This sonata provided a great contrast to the opening piece of the night, as it is long and winding, developing slowly. Each of the four movements is unique, going from a lively and warm first movement to a march with sharp character in the second movement. The third and fourth movements melt into one another, the third being the slowest of the movements and transitioning into an extensive finale.
Dr. Willis’ performance of this sonata was flawless, as he executed beautiful phrasing and made difficult passages seem effortless. His success was encapsulated by the reaction of the crowd, as the end of the piece was met with great applause and an audience member yelling, “Bravo!”
Third on the program was a short Praeludium based on Bach’s keyboard style composed around 1803. Though the general style is representative of the Baroque style Bach composed in, Beethoven’s prelude is more inwardly representative of his own style, as it is darker and more serious than the compositions he modeled this piece after. This piece served as somewhat of a palate cleanser between the two piano sonatas on the program, as it is brief and simple.
The last piece of the night was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, his 31st piano sonata. Requested by the Schlesinger firm of music publishers, the piece was composed in late 1821. The first movement opens with a gentle, sweet melody, and Willis’s presentation of the thematic material was captivating. The opening movement is typical and outwardly simple, though the themes throughout present a complex mood. Almost all the movement is tranquil and peaceful, but there are occasional moments of intensity and tension, suggesting an impending disruption in the mood.
This disruption does not come in the second movement, a happy and light scherzo, but in the third movement, a slow adagio. The theme of this movement is somber and dark, reflective of a personal journey. At the time Beethoven composed this piece, he was dealing with the onset of an illness that would eventually kill him. This movement in particular highlights a sense of morality and is highly emotional, and Dr. Willis played with intensity and at a tempo that gave the music a chance to breathe.
The slow, somber third movement transitions seamlessly into the constantly moving finale, which begins in a similar dark place but ends with the reappearance of the main theme from the first movement, which allows the piece to move to a triumphant ending. This sonata is endlessly complex and deep, and Willis conveyed this sense of morality and impending doom through the work.
Faculty recitals provide a great chance for students of UNCG and members of the surrounding community to hear the great talent that the faculty of the School of Music must offer. Pianist Dr. Andrew Willis presented an intense and involved program of all Beethoven pieces with technical mastery, and he truly elevated the pieces to a greater level of musicality.