Llŷr Williams Meets the Hammerklavier

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Llŷr Williams (piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 24.3.2016. (LJ)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in G, Op. 79; Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 90; Six Bagatelles, Op. 126; Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106

Llŷr Williams began his latest concert from his ‘Beethoven Sonata Series’ at Cardiff’s RWCMD with what Beethoven himself called his “Sonate facile ou sonatine”: Piano Sonata in G, Op. 39. This light-hearted, even jolly piece (with the cuckoo-call in the central development) was a clear contrast to Beethoven’s other short, but certainly not jocund, Sonata in E minor, Op. 90. The E minor Sonata shares the simplicity of the G major Sonata, but offers the listener more complexity. Beethoven referred to it as a “context between head and heart”. This feeling of being in flux, of the piece forcing the listener to inhabit a liminal space of energy (first movement) and reflectiveness (second movement), was conveyed perfectly by Williams.

From these two pieces alone, let alone the Bagatelles and gargantuan sonata to follow, the listener can appreciate Beethoven’s astonishing ability to explore humanity in its entirety with its problematic admixture of tragedy and comedy, seriousness and triviality. For Beethoven, in a phrase that sounds much like Walt Whitman’s song of the ‘body electric’, music is “the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents”. This simultaneously natural and mystical idea of music is embedded into Williams’ often mesmerising performance.

Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126 were written for his brother and according to a letter Beethoven wrote to his publisher Schott, this particular set of bagatelles were “probably the best [he’d] written”. This ‘Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten’ (cycle of little pieces) was, as one may gather from Beethoven’s inscription, intended to be played as one piece. Musicologist Lewis Lockwood supports this by suggesting that the miniature works are supposed to be played as a whole because starting with the second Bagatelle in G minor, the keys of the pieces fall in a regular succession of descending major thirds. Lockwood also notes this pattern in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the String Quartet, Op. 127. When playing this set of six miniatures, Williams was able to capture the individual character of each whilst not losing their intended togetherness and serialisation. In contrast to the Hammerklavier Sonata which followed, these pieces are lighter and do not consist of the heavy profundity of the works he was composing around the same time. This is not to say, however, that these pieces are trivial, for each segment is a concentrated extract of Beethoven’s creative verve. Williams gave these “diamond-like chippings from the Master’s workshop” (as Bryce Morrison describes them), the thoroughness and integrity they deserve. I don’t think it too much of an exaggeration to say that of the four pieces Williams performed, these six Bagatelles were the most rewarding.

Williams’ programme was skilfully put together. The evening’s music allowed for deep contemplation and bewildering virtuosity. Musically, the third Bagatelle in E flat major picks up on the elaboration of a slow melody in triple time from the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106 that formed the second half of the recital.

The Hammerklavier was completed in 1818 – the year Byron finished Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Mendelssohn gave his first public concert in Berlin aged nine. Charles Rosen has observed that Beethoven “never again wrote so obsessively concentrated a work.” Often thought of as the most challenging sonata in the piano repertoire, Williams showed no obvious signs of trepidation. Perhaps the only marker of his humility when facing this Herculean feat was the measured restraint with which he played the first movement. I quickly qualify this observation by stating that if Horowitz were sitting at the piano, this carefulness would be a detriment to the overall performance which would rely heavily on Horowitz’s maverick style. But Williams is an altogether different performer. Where Horowitz thrives on the excessive, Williams thrives on the subtle. With the first movement (that largely consists of heavy handed B major chords) ending with the final notes marked fff, this opening movement naturally suits a more extroverted player. Williams’ controlled performance, though it did not offer as much contrast with the sobering slow movement, equally did not interfere with the character of the sonata as a whole. In the “most significant monologue Beethoven ever wrote”, as William Kempf described the third movement of the Hammerklavier, Williams was sublime. With incomparable musicianship, Williams brought out the sorrow and tenderness of this movement to make this performance noteworthy for its contemplative strength rather than its bombastic shortcoming. For Paul Bekker this movement is “the apotheosis of pain, of that deep sorrow for which there is no remedy, and which finds expression not in passionate outpourings, but in the immeasurable stillness of utter woe.” I feel that this description suits Williams’ performance which stilled the audience in its transcendent integrity.

When called on for an encore, Williams quipped that “one problem of the Hammerklavier is that it ends too quickly . . . Beethoven had too many ideas racing through his head.” Whilst there is some truth in this statement, for the fugue in the last movement is a feat of contrapuntal ingenuity and inventiveness (Stravinsky called it both inexhaustible and exhausting), an encore of Chopin was an unexpected bonus to an already fulsome evening.

Lucy Jeffery

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