Llyr Williams Strikes Fires and Brings Tears

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven:  Llyr Williams (piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 28.5.2015, (LJ).

Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, ‘Tempest’
Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 31, No. 3
Piano Sonata in G, Op. 31, No. 1
Piano Sonata in A, Op. 101.

For the third instalment of Llyr Williams’ Beethoven sonata cycle, the three works of Opus 31 and Opus 101 took to the stage. Marking a turning point in his composing voice, due to his dissatisfaction with the classical style of music, in these pieces Beethoven pledged to forge a new path of musical composition and style. With new and unconventional ideas, Beethoven’s Opus 31 works, written after the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, mark the emergence of Beethoven’s late style. As William Kinderman suggested: “Beethoven’s innovative tendencies surface more clearly in the three piano sonatas of op. 31, also from 1802.  These three sonatas, in G major, D minor, and E-flat major, are notable landmarks along Beethoven’s so-called ‘new path’, boldly exploring artistic territory that he soon consolidated in the Eroica Symphony.”

This is a musical marker of new beginnings. As Shakespeare writes: “What’s past is prologue.” For these works a new mind-set is required. As Caliban says in Act 3 Scene 2 of The Tempest:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

These are all works of ‘sweet airs’ choked by an ivy of ‘twangling instruments’ which strangling classical melody ‘show riches’ in its complex knot of leaves and branches. Rooted to grand Romantic themes of sublime despair, parody, and love, Beethoven emerges as a mooncalf, the noble savage of a glibly refined and pompous Viennese culture.

With its three movements of swelling storms, quelling stillness, and shipwreck, Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata marks the evaporation of poise by a thunder-clap of crescendos, diminuendos, accents, outbursts, and plunges into blackness. Llyr’s restraint in the first movement helped to convey the angst and sorrow running through this piece. Musicologist Rose Subotnik says of the late work of Beethoven, no doubt with his Missa Solemnis or the Ninth Symphony in mind: “no synthesis is conceivable [but is in effect] the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of its wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it forever.” With such conflicting strands deeply embedded in Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, Shakespeare’s own work seems apt. Indeed, when Schindler asked him about the meaning of his D minor sonata, Beethoven quipped: “Read Shakespeare’s The Tempest”. Describing late style as containing not harmonious resolution, but “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”, Edward Said sums up the angst of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, which Llyr gave voice to exquisitely.

In stark contrast, playing the Sonata in E flat, No. 3 Llyr sounded joyous, as he gave voice to the hints of Mozartian fidelity in Beethoven’s piece. With no slow movement this piece begins with what Marion Scott calls “a wonderful soft call to attention, as if the evening start tapped on the casement” and continues in this vein. Playful and jubilant, earning its nickname ‘The Hunt’, this jocular style thinly veils profound depth and emotion. Sensitive as ever, Llyr elucidates the humanism of Beethoven’s progressive harmonic colour with commendable bravery.

Performing what Llyr described as Beethoven’s “most puzzling” work with its “complete lack of lyrical warmth”, Llyr suggested that the Piano Sonata in G, No. 1 was Beethoven’s attempt at “deliberately writing a heartless piece” which is “sardonically humorous”. Somewhat less seriously, Andras Schiff, alluding to the youthful humour of the piece, describes it as “an extremely witty work, and perhaps Beethoven’s wittiest sonata altogether”. Playing this piece retrospectively, looking at a Romantic piece through a Modernist lens (thinking of Stravinsky and Prokofiev) Llyr performed the second movement with intensity and dehiscence. Fragmented into tiny slivers of glass, Beethoven’s Sonata in G became a mosaic of ill-fitting pieces, creating a jarring atmosphere which was at once thought-provoking and challenging for the listener. According to Edwin Fischer and Andras Schiff, this movement is a parody of Italian opera and Beethoven’s much more popular contemporaries. Almost the antithesis of Claudio Arrau, Llyr’s interpretation is by no means lesser, but offers a refreshingly original examination of such a familiar piece.

The recital finished with the Sonata in A, Op. 101 (completed in 1816), composed after the ‘Immortal Beloved’ affair of 1812 and the acceptance of being forever alone. In this work Beethoven the man emerges. Writing music tinged with disappointment and mixed with acceptance and despair, Beethoven appears sensitive and changeable as a man surviving against the odds. Martin Cooper remarks that this is “the first work that belongs quite unequivocally to Beethoven’s third period”. Torn between restraint and freedom, Beethoven opens out the piano, using extreme registers and textures through rhythmic syncopations and an almost unnervingly honest intimacy. Llyr opened the door to the private and personal Beethoven, giving us all a glimpse at the genius’ innermost hopes and fears, replete with juxtaposing lament and impetuosity. Men of contradictions, both the gargantuan and unassuming sides of Beethoven and Llyr come across in their personalities and music.

Returning to the piano for an encore, Llyr performed Schumann’s Rundgesang mit Solostimmen (Roundelay with Solo Voices) from his Nachtstücke with distilled perspicuity and emotion. Composed in 1839, Schumann’s sorrow over the death of his brother Eduard (who, like van Gogh’s brother Theo, was his benefactor) can be felt throughout. In a letter to Clara Wieck (then his fiancée), Robert wrote: “Wouldn’t you leave me if I were now to become a very poor man and told you to leave me because I would bring you nothing but sorrow?”. As always, Llyr shone light on the difficulties of expressing emotion which presses heavily on one’s heart.

In a recent interview with Sean Rafferty on Radio 3the pianist noted that “the more time you spend on the sonatas, the more new things you find in them”. Things bode well for Llyr’s next instalment on 8th October.

Lucy Jeffery

1 thought on “Llyr Williams Strikes Fires and Brings Tears”

  1. ‘Beethoven’s Opus 31 works . . . mark the emergence of Beethoven’s late style.’ At this stage in his life Beethoven had written just the first two of his nine symphonies – it’s ludicrous to talk of his ‘late style’ emerging so early. ‘Beethoven’s mature style’ would be nearer the mark.


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