Eroica Variations Steal the Show in Llŷr Williams’ Latest Beethoven Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Llŷr Williams (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 9.01.2016. (GPu)

Piano Sonata in G, Op.49 No. 2
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 26
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’
Piano Sonata in G minor, Op.49 No.1
Eroica Variations, Op.35

This was the fifth in a series of recitals in which Llŷr Williams is playing all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. It was striking, thus, that the finest and most substantial music heard was not a sonata at all, but the Eroica Variations – or, to give it its full title Fifteen Variations and a Fugue on an original theme in E-flat – which closed the programme. The sonatas which the consistently excellent Williams was playing on this occasion were all relatively early works, from the mid to late 1790s in the case of the two Opus 49 sonatas, c. 1798 (Opus 13) and 1801 (Opus 26); the Eroica Variations were written in 1802, only a year after the last of this group of sonatas, but they occupy a different musical world; it is as if high ability (which the sonatas certainly demonstrate) has been, pretty quickly, transformed into genius. It is tempting, but probably unwise, to see the musical and imaginative deepening registered in this transformation as being somehow related to Beethoven’s recognition of his deafness and his sense that it might prevent him having “an opportunity to show all [his] artistic capacities” – it is, at least, a striking coincidence that the Heiligenstadt Testament (from which I have just quoted) belongs to the same year as these brilliant and profoundly innovative variations.

Williams was heard at his very best in his performance of this astonishing work. His penetrative musical intelligence and superb technique were alike evident throughout, in, for example, in the brilliant arabesques of the first variation, the ‘romantic’ writing in the eighth and the playful elegance of the eleventh, or the almost  comic conversation between left hand and right hand in the twelfth variation. Throughout all of this, at the same time that one is aware of so much that is unprecedented in Beethoven’s previous work for the piano, one is simultaneously conscious of the presence of much older musical forms and conventions given radical new life. As Maynard Solomon puts it “the Opus 35 variations are of special interest by virtue of their use of compositional procedures – fugue, chaconne, harmonic variation – identified with the Baroque composers”. The work as a whole has a sense of scale (of grandeur indeed) and of escaping almost entirely from the aesthetic horizons of its own period, which is possessed by none of the sonatas which preceded it in this recital. Williams did full justice to its power and scope.

The evening had begun – this is a measure of how big the musical journey was! – with the pleasant but largely mechanical triviality of the G major Sonata, the second of the two Opus 49 sonatas. These might actually be better called sonatinas. Calling them sonatas can set up the wrong expectations amongst listeners, and perhaps even amongst performers, if the word implies that they possess the range and depth (emotionally, intellectually or technically) which one thinks of as characteristic of the best of the Beethovenian cycle of sonatas. The sonatas / sonatinas of Clementi and Dussek provide a better context for them than is to be found in their own composer’s mature work. Tovey judged them to be amongst the most beautiful sonatinas “within the range of small hands and young players”. That may be true, especially of the G minor sonata, the better of the two, but one only needs to think of, say, the Hammerklavier (or indeed the Opus 35 Variations) being attempted by “small hands and young players” to realise what a different world these early sonatas occupy. For the accomplished professional pianist they can set a trap. Not technically, of course, but in the temptation to ‘inflate’ them, to make them sound more like Beethoven, to try to invest them with a fullness and weight greater than they are really to bear. Williams wisely resisted this temptation. His reading of the G minor sonata, in particular, was very persuasive. He accepted the simplicity and innocence of the opening allegro on its own terms (both of these early sonatas are, of course, consist of just two movements).

Although the other two sonatas included in this programme (Opus 13 and Opus 26) may fall short of what was to follow them in the later and greater piano sonatas of Beethoven, it is also very evident that they mark major progress from the Opus 49 sonatinas – and in a very few years. Indeed one of the ‘lessons’ of this recital was just how extraordinary and rapid was the deepening of Beethoven’s understanding of both the piano and the sonata form.

Both Opus 13 and Opus 26 have had an enduring popularity, with good reason(s).  Each carries a name, which usually increases a sonata’s chance of being remembered. In each case the name refers (primarily or exclusively) to a single movement, and in both sonatas the other movements are of less interest, so that neither is wholly satisfactory when heard entire.

Listening to Opus 13 (the ‘Pathétique’) I always find myself wanting to use words like drama and dramatic. Indeed ‘theatrical’ sometimes seems the best word, as if the composer may have had in mind emotional patterns and effects more often experienced in watching/reading the drama of his time. Even the famous adagio cantabile, beautiful as it is, always seems to me to speak more of a fashionably affected melancholy rather than anything emotionally weightier. Even in Llŷr Williams’ fine performance, played with a very well-judged sense of scale, that was the case. In the opening movement Williams was persuasive in the ‘grave’ introduction but couldn’t entirely conceal the slight air of  routine in the development of the rest of the movement, of which Harold Truscott writes  “it has an air of being manufactured”. The concluding rondo was played with panache and delightful lucidity. The stand-out movement of Opus 26 is, of course, its famous “Marcia funebre: sulla morte d’un eroe”, which seems, both on external documentary evidence and the ‘feel’ of the music, to deal more in ideas and ideals than personalities. It is ‘public’ or ceremonial music and remains at the level of generalised sentiment, rather than intensely personal emotion. Williams gave us a fine reading of this sonata bringing out more clearly than is often the case the relationship between the first movement and the three that follow it. The funeral march had an altogether unsentimental gravity and the closing allegro was, in fitting contrast, imbued with vivacity, its rapid runs played with facility and shaped with delightful precision and clarity.

For all the virtues of Williams’ playing in these two sonatas, the finest music heard, as suggested earlier, was that in the Opus 35 variations. The next concert in Llŷr Williams’ valuable series will take place in March and will be reviewed by my friend and colleague Lucy Jeffery. Since the programme includes both the E minor Sonata (Opus 90) and the magnificent Hammerklavier Sonata (Opus 106), I think it exceedingly unlikely that Lucy will, on that occasion, find herself saying that the sonatas were outshone by another work on the programme.

Glyn Pursglove

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