Magnificent Performances of Beethoven Sonatas from Llyr Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Llyr Williams (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 8.10,2015 (GPu)


Sonata in B flat, Op.22
Sonata in F, Op.54
Andante favori in F
Sonata in C, Op.53 – ‘Waldstein’

This was the first concert in Year 2 of Llyr Williams’s complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano sonatas (a cycle being given in Cardiff and London – at the Wigmore Hall). I am tempted to say that the concert might be reviewed in a single word – Magnificent! But, on reflection, that single word (though thoroughly justified) might not necessarily imply those qualities of profound musical intelligence, warm humanity and formidable technique which all that we heard was imbued.

All the music in this recital belongs to a period of just four years – from 1800, when Opus 22 was written to 1804 (in which year all the other three works in the programme seem to have been completed).

The Sonata in B flat (Opus 22) is a Janus-faced work, looking both forwards and backwards, stylistically speaking. As played by Llyr Williams one realized how ‘maturely’ Beethovenian the opening movement (allegro con brio) was, even if, like the third  movement (menuetto), it also recalled Mozart and Haydn. Williams seemed to ‘allow’, as it were, the thematic materials of the first movement to grow and burgeon organically, to bubble up in various directions like a mountain spring. It felt as if (though such language is doubtless hyperbolic) Beethoven’s music was playing though him, rather than being played by him. The second movement (adagio con molto expression) is more fully ‘romantic’ than its predecessor and was played with expressive delicacy by Williams and with a profound lyricism that was never remotely in danger of becoming sentimental. The decidedly Haydnesque opening of the minuet is succeeded by some troubled ‘explosions’ in the trio as well as some unexpected colours, illustrations (perhaps one should say enactments) of the way that Beethoven’s use of the piano was changing, even before he acquired his Erard piano in 1803). In the closing Rondo Williams brought out fully both the serenity of the opening and the more dramatic surprises later in the movement, and in giving equal weight to both anticipated an important dimension of the next work in his programme.

I have long felt that the two movement Sonata in F, Opus 54 is a fine work too often overlooked or neglected. This performance of it by Llyr Williams must surely have alerted more than a few of his listeners to something of the same recognition. The sonata’s two movements, (marked, respectively ‘In tempo d’un Menuetto’ and ‘Allegretto’) were the occasion for some outstanding playing by Williams. In the first movement the music’s character is defined by the presence of two fiercely contrasted elements, a smoothly graceful opening theme (Beethoven’s debt to Haydn still very much evident) and a far more dramatic theme in eighth-note triplets. Williams brought out the contrast very vividly. These, indeed, are contrarieties in a thoroughly Blakean sense, whether one thinks of the engraved title-page of William Blake’s collection of lyrics ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’, or, more aptly still, of a famous passage in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (a work which Blake wrote some ten years before Beethoven composed these sonatas): “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.”

For Blake, these contraries are not alternatives between which one should choose. The task, rather, is to hold onto both, to value both and to recognize how they are mutually dependent, in a sense complementary. This, it seems to me, is precisely what Beethoven does in this remarkable first movement. He doesn’t resolve the relationship between his contrasting materials by, as it were, allowing one to triumph, musically speaking, over the other. Rather, after alternating the contrasting materials several times, he reveals their complementarity (surely unsuspected by most listeners) at the ravishingly beautiful and meaningful close of the movement, in which the two ‘themes’ (though they are more than merely that) are played simultaneously. As Peter Reynolds put it in his excellent programme notes for the concert: “in the closing bars the two ideas are united: the minuet in the right hand and the rough triplets in the left”. It is one of the great musical moments of reconciliation. The sonata’s second movement is perhaps less profound, but this perpetuum mobile mixes its energetic humour with a certain darkness. Eric Blom wrote of the work as full of “Socratic humor”, adding that “the humor is not bitter: Socratic irony approaches it nearly. But its purport is not philosophic”. I find these observations wholly apt for the second movement, less so for the first.

Opus 22 (and to a lesser degree Opus 54) are, then, Janus-faced sonatas, looking both backwards and forwards. Opus 53, the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata is of a different order, a work more purely forward looking, a work in which the composer has so thoroughly assimilated the lessons of the past, so thoroughly ‘Beethovenised’ those elements in the work of his predecessors which interest him, that to talk of ‘influences’ on this sonata is more or less pointless and irrelevant. One is obliged to talk, rather (though not here and now!) of the influence this work exerted on later music (by Beethoven and others), what it made possible. Here is a work which is both fully Beethovenian and fully ‘Romantic’ (for all that one can also see it as one which fully exploits the possibilities of the classical sonatas in ways not previously discovered). In its romanticism it is passionate and visionary, characterised by what Hugo Leichtentritt (writing in the 1930s) called its “self-confidently vigorous, triumphant attitude, the bold grandeur of its design, and its well-balanced mastery”. The music is more elemental than personal, articulating far more than any idea of romanticism as merely a kind of subjective self-expression.  So, for example, the ecstasy in which the final movement closes is not, to quote Leichtentritt a second time, “the sentiment of an isolated individual. It is the music of universality”. The joy is not that of personal triumph (though it may contain such a sense), so much as of a larger sublimity, a particular apprehension of order, a kind of ‘music of the spheres’. In a work of such harmonic and thematic inventiveness, of almost relentless energy, contained by a more or less all-embracing sense of order, the difficulties facing the performer are not merely (are they ever really so?) ones to be expressed purely in terms of overcoming technical demands, but also of rising, as it were, to the heights of Beethoven’s passionate vision.

Llyr Williams’ performance was incandescent in its passion and also its profound sense of that Beethovenian vision of order which is at the heart of the whole work; and, as those who have heard Williams before will not be surprised to hear, it was technically perfect. But, vitally, at all points the virtuosity was free of any self-regard and without of any sense of display, being entirely at the service of the music. As is well-known, the first version of this sonata included, as its second movement an andante some 8 or 9 minutes long. Beethoven is said to have been persuaded by friends that the presence of this movement would make the sonata as a whole unacceptably lengthy. If this story is true, one finds it surprising that Beethoven would have accepted such advice for such a reason. Perhaps he chose to omit it in part because, beautiful as it is, the movement was stylistically, and, one might say ‘temperamentally’ at odds with those either side of it, being more ‘personal in mood and thrust – not without good reason did Romain Rolland describe it as “this andante [into which Beethoven put] many of his more intimate emotions at this period of his life”. There is no doubt, however, as to the movement’s very real beauty, nor any surprise in that Beethoven continued to play it as a free-standing piece and later published it as ‘Andante favori’. It was right and good that Williams should play the andante as a kind of prelude to the Waldstein in revised version, especially when it was played so well, even if the relatively unfocused and diffuse nature of the writing which was revealed, made one realise how wise its omission was. If one tries the experiment (easy enough on a CD player) of reinserting this music between the outer movements of the sonata, it sounds, although attractive, decidedly lightweight. What Beethoven replaced it with was an extraordinary ‘introduzione (adagio molto)’ to the final Rondo , a piece less than 30 bars long which yet, is very far from being lightweight. Brief as it is, it is profoundly serious and meditative, a piece which seems to call up (the relationship between this ‘prelude’ and what followed it felt, in this performance, like a kind of creation myth in music) the far more spacious and sublime sound world of the last movement. (Not every student of the sonata has, however, been persuaded of the ‘happiness’ of Beethoven’s substitution here. Even a sensitive Beethoven scholar like Harold Truscott, while describing this ‘introduzione’ as “one of the profoundest passages Beethoven ever wrote”, felt that “it leaps ahead by many years to the world of [Beethoven’s] third period; its fit companions are works such as the Opp. 101 and 109 sonatas … To this extent the ‘Waldstein’ sonata remained unbalanced, with one problem Beethoven never solved”). I have heard performances of the sonata – both recorded and in the concert hall – which might seem to justify Truscott’s comments. But Llyr Williams’s reading of the work persuaded one that Beethoven had solved the problem and that the sonata as a whole is excitingly coherent and ‘balanced’.

After these captivating and absolutely persuasive readings, the response of a packed hall was rightly rapturous and lengthy. Though he must surely have been tired, the pianist responded with two encores – both by Scriabin! – the brief ‘Désir’ (the first of the two morceaux making up the composers, Opus 57 and the Étude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 12. Both were finely played, the first providing some tranquil beauty in miniature after the power and scale of the Waldstein, the second, taken pretty fast, being a closing display both of Williams’s virtuosity and his sense of the poetic.

In short – it was magnificent!

Glyn Pursglove

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