Llŷr Williams plays epic Beethoven on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  The Beethoven Concert Series at Greyfriars Kirk (1) – Llŷr Williams (piano), Greyfriars Kirk, 12. 8.2011 (SRT)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata Op2 No1 in F minor
Piano Sonata Op14 No2 in G major
Piano Sonata Op13 in C minor – ‘Pathétique’

Across town from the opening concert of the Edinburgh International Festival, a smaller scale but equally ambitious epic was beginning in the surroundings of Greyfriars Kirk. Over the next fortnight Greyfriars will be presenting the complete Beethoven piano sonatas played by Llŷr Williams and the complete quartets played by the Heath Quartet. An undertaking as exciting as this could easily hold its own in the programme for the EIF and it’s perhaps a sign of the incredible cultural vitality of the city at this time of year that it is instead taking place as part of the Fringe instead. The only disadvantage is that this makes it harder to get the word out, something clear from the disappointing audience figures for Williams’ opening recital, a crying shame because everyone present heard some outstanding pianism from one of the finest Beethoven pianists we have today.

Williams’ gift is to inhabit Beethoven’s writing and take it to the nth degree of intensity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the opening chords of the Pathetique sonata sound so granite-like and menacing and throughout the evening he constantly forced the listener to reassess their impressions of these familiar works. The opening of Op. 2, No. 1, for example, felt jaunty and angular before turning into something dark and brooding in the development, and the fistfuls of notes in the finale were electrifying. No-one new to this work would have guessed that this was Beethoven’s first published sonata: in Williams’ hands it felt like a work of staggering maturity and scale.

His finest moments came in Op. 14, No. 2, however, revelling in the quirks and humorous touches Beethoven writes, especially at the tail ends of movements. More lyrical than its companions, this sonata ebbed and flowed in Williams’ hands, constantly becoming something new – like clay on a potter’s wheel. The highlight of the evening was his playing of the middle movement variations, something that could sound gentle and beguiling turned into an essay in outstanding musical architecture. If the rest of the series is to be anything like this opener then lovers of the piano and of Beethoven are in for a treat. If you’re anywhere near Edinburgh over the next fortnight then get along to Greyfriars and see what you’re missing.

Greyfriars’ Beethoven cycle runs until Friday 26th August. Tickets can be booked at www.edfringe.com or are available at the door.

Simon Thompson