Contrary to what some were saying, it was not the first time a fortepiano has been heard at the University of Utah. Indeed, no less than Malcolm Bilson performed on one nearly a decade ago in this very building, as a member of the now-defunct Amade Trio.
But it was perhaps the first time one has been featured in solo recital, climaxing the first week in the music department's autumn-quarter Haydn Festival. On this occasion the soloist was Temple University's Andrew Willis, performing Saturday in the Thomas Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts. And if his program focused more on the instrument than on Haydn per se, the former is probably more in need of missionary work these days anyway.Not that Willis is at all parochial. His lecture-demonstration the preceding day, for example, was remarkable for its balance vis-a-vis "authentic" instruments, even acknowledging the place of electronic keyboards. But the fact remains that much of the music from the late 18th and early 19th centuries - the period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - was composed for instruments far more modest than the concert grands we hear it on today.
Performing on a copy of a 1780s Stein fortepiano, Willis gave us a cross-section of that, ranging from C.P.E. Bach to Schubert. The chief differences: a narrower range of octaves and of volume, a brighter tone and a lighter action, with a more rapid decay.
From Haydn we had two works, the familiar Sonata in E flat major (H. 49) and the remarkable C major Fantasia, both from around 1789. I found the slow movement of the first a bit square, but the opening Allegro had a unique piquancy and delicacy of timbre, with every voice distinct. And the repeated underpinning in the low end - which finds Haydn working right to the bottom of the keyboard - was beautifully and naturally sustained.
The Minuet-Finale showed both composer and artist in a more playful mood, as did the exuberant fireworks of the Fantasia - a mite frantic perhaps but subtly graded, even down to its echoes of the hunt.
If this looks forward to Beethoven, then Mozart's Fantasia in D minor (K. 397) would seem to look back - for example, the flowing triplets of the Bachian prelude, here quite solemn. Elsewhere the flow was compromised by more squared-off phrasing and some halting transitions. But the ensuing D major Rondo (K. 485), which in fact takes its theme from J.C. Bach, was sprightly enough (the appoggiaturas taken ahead of the beat).
Although a trifle bangy, the arpeggiated chords of C.P.E.'s Fantasia in C likewise registered to good effect. However, the most interesting performances were arguably of the two best-known pieces on the program - each of which we generally associate with the romantic era - Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and Schubert's C minor Impromptu.
Dating from 1827, the latter, despite some missteps on the pianist's part, actually gained in poignancy within the instrument's more limited range. And although some may have missed the weight both here and in the famous undulations of the famous slow movement of the Beethoven, I think there can be no question this is the decay time the latter had in mind. In fact, in view of the increased clarity, I found myself wishing Willis had taken this a bit faster.
Ditto the Allegretto, the lightness of which was nonetheless welcome. But perhaps he was saving that for the Presto, which moved lickety-split for an explosive finish.