Cautious Exactitude and Daring Experimentation in Llyr Williams’ Beethoven Cycle Part 2

Beethoven: Llyr Williams (piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff,  21.2.2015 (LJ)

Fantasia in G minor, Op 77
Piano Sonata in E major, Op 14 No. 1
Piano Sonata in G major, Op 14 No. 2
Six Variations on a Theme in F major, Op 34
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op 27 No. 1
Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op 27 No. 2

Continuing his Beethoven Cycle with the second instalment, Llyr Williams returned to Cardiff’s Dora Stoutzker Hall in the RWCMD to an expectant audience. Replete with his awkward, yet somehow endearing, stage presence intertwined with an extraordinary expressiveness at the piano, Llyr was back in town. For a man who seems painfully uneasy with the theatricality of being a concert pianist, Williams undergoes a remarkable transformation of character as he sits at the piano, poised and ready for action. On Saturday night, Williams gave a recital imbibed with a unique blend of cautious exactitude and daring experimentation.

One noticeable (and seemingly ongoing) change in Williams’ playing is his increased sense of personal interpretation of each piece. No longer prosaic, his performances for his Beethoven cycle have been intriguing reinventions of well-known repertoire. Even his performance of the infamous Moonlight Sonata felt revamped as it was performed with freshness and ingenuity. Perhaps this newfound inventiveness is a result of growing confidence and reputation. Along with his characteristic perfectionism, Williams has managed to hone this confidence to a fine point of precision and coherency in his performances.  As Hilary Finch wrote in The Times: “[Williams is] one of the truly great musicians of our time […] Those with ears to hear will have followed Williams’s playing as it has grown ever more secure and expansive.”  This unabashed, unapologetic self-assurance and control was evident from the outset.

As music that moves between the microcosm of human thought and with its immediacy transcends to a planetary, stellar motion; Beethoven’s piano sonatas comprise the perpetual coming together and flux of forms. As the music-loving author Samuel Beckett wrote in one of his early novels entitled Dream of Fair to Middling Women: “I think of [Beethoven’s] earlier compositions where into the body of the musical statement he incorporates a punctuation of dehiscence, flottements, the coherence gone to pieces, the continuity bitched to hell because the units of continuity have abdicated their unity, they have gone multiple, they fall apart, the notes fly about, a blizzard of electrons”. Picking up on this vitality and nuance, Williams’s playing was pert and attentive, ready to realise the sudden and slight shifts in Beethoven’s score.

In these pieces, ideas and phrases morph and mutate in a constant state of invention and revelation. Williams picks out this innate improvisational quality in the Fantasia in G minor, Op 77. With heavy punctuation of silences and exaggerated use of suspension before launching into runs he heightens the drama and freedom of the piece. As Johann Joseph Fux advised in 1725: “Endeavour, moreover, to introduce suspensions now in this voice, now in that, for it is incredible how much grace the melody acquires by this means. And every note which has a special function is rendered audible thereby.” This strong use of emphasis came to good effect in the final pounding chord of the second movement to the Sonata in G, Op. 14 No. 2. Also creating imagery of gushing waterfalls and pastoral idylls, Williams demonstrated great lyricism in his performance of this piece. Additionally, Williams managed to extenuate the percussiveness of the piano in the Allegro molto e vivace to the Sonata in E flat, Op. 27 No. 1 as he made good use of his left hand to keep hold of the rhythm, which at times, had a tendency to almost slip from his grasp. Minor slipups aside, along with the angst and anxiety of the Presto agitato of the Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, Williams also created a mood of light jouissance and cantabile sonority in the allegros of the Sonata in E, Op. 14, No. 1 and Sonata in G. In particular, Williams’s performance of the fifth variation from Beethoven’s Variations on an Original Theme in F, Op. 34, was brilliant.

From being given a cassette player by his parents for Christmas when he was around five years old to performing Beethoven’s Sonata series, Williams has developed into an intelligent musician with an admixture of wit, bravery and integrity. When being interviewed in 2011, Williams seemed to unveil his affinity with Beethoven, saying: “I like to think about music when I’m walking, like Beethoven,” adding “I love the huge variety of the music, not just between pieces but within one piece.” With strong distinctions between colours and textures in his playing, Williams seems Romantic in style; however, coupled with his minimalist simplicity and intensity, nis interpretation is personal, and at times even revitalising.

In response to relentless applause and a mottled standing ovation, Williams returned to play the infamous bagatelle dedicated to Therese Malfatti, the friend and student of Beethoven to whom he proposed in 1810, only to be turned down for an Austrian nobleman six years later. Playing Fur Elise (Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor) to close to what must have been a mentally and physically exhausting evening, he was composed and delicate to the end. I look forward to part three on 28th May.

Lucy Jeffery


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