Magisterial Beethoven from Llŷr Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Llŷr Williams (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 6.10.2016. (GPu)

Llyr Williams
Llŷr Williams

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C minor Op.10 No.1; Piano Sonata in F Op.10 No.2; Piano Sonata in D Op.10 No.3; Diabelli Variations Op.120

Many years ago in the days of my (relative) youth I bought a number of the 25 or so CDs issued by Deutsche Grammophon under the collective title Beethoven Masterpieces. None of them contained anything like full booklet notes, though they did reproduce a lot of interesting images. I seem to have only one of those CDs still on my shelves. In the documentation with it (it features Pollini playing the Emperor Concerto) there is only one paragraph of text, which begins thus: “Beethoven was an inspired musical revolutionary whose daring reforms sounded the death-knell of Viennese classicism and prepared the way for German Romanticism”. For all its inflated language and over simplification, there is some truth in the statement, a truth perfectly embodied in this latest concert in Llŷr Williams’s cycle of all the piano sonatas – plus a number of other works for piano solo.

The three sonatas published as opus 10, which made up the first half of the programme on this occasion, were written between 1795 and 1798 (the year of their publication). In them one hears nothing quite so dramatic as the “death-knell” of Viennese classicism (Beethoven had moved permanently to Vienna in 1792), but rather the emergence of a decidedly individual approach and musical voice from within that tradition. In the broadest sense, these sonatas remain within the Viennese tradition, but they show us a composer in the very process of moving beyond that tradition. No. 1 in the set has plenty of drama about it; it is no coincidence, one suspects, that it is in a key (C minor) which was to become the mature Beethoven’s ‘key of conflict’. Here there are, as it were, ‘promises’ of that conflict, but the full exploration of the conflicts is suppressed, not least in the central section of the opening Allegro and through most of the Adagio molto movement which follows. The opening of the third and final movement is, in a related way, characterized by sense of contained energy. Though I have already used the word ‘dramatic’ about this sonata, the word ‘theatrical’ might actually be more apt. The music has a slightly self-aware language of gesture, rather than of absolute substance. Such ‘gestures’ were soon to turn into fully realized musical substance. The anticipations are clear – the sonata certainly looks beyond Viennese classicism. But there are echoes of Beethoven’s predecessors too. Harold Truscott rightly observes that “The swiftness and, to some extent, the mood” of this sonata “is certainly a legacy from Clementi, the originator and original master of such swiftness”. The sonata’s Adagio also owes something to a particular model in Clementi (his sonata in E flat, Opus 7, No.1)  The connections are discussed by Truscott in his chapter, ‘The Piano Music – I’ in The Beethoven Companion, edited by Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, published in 1971. Janus-like, the sonata can be seen to look both backward and (with the advantage of hindsight) forward.

So, too, do its two fellows in Opus 10. The second of the Opus 10 sonatas (in F) was something of a favourite with the composer himself, and it is hard not to like its genial wit. The opening allegro, indeed, might almost be by Haydn – another composer of genial wit – not least in the way it plays games with the listener’s expectations. If, on the other hand, the Allegretto that follows reminds the listener of another composer, it would most probably be of Schubert. The Presto finale has wit of another, perhaps less subtle kind, in its mock-heroic approximation of fugue. Eric Blom, indeed, has suggested that “the mock-fugal opening reminds one strongly of Domenico Scarlatti”. I can’t hear such a resemblance myself, but the observation itself suggests, once more, the Janus-like quality of these early sonatas. Williams is a pianist very gifted in the unexaggerated ‘pointing’, by his playing and in his physical movements at the keyboard, of keyboard wit and his glee in this sonata was both obvious and easily shared by his appreciative audience.

The third of the Opus 10 sonatas is the only one of the set to have four (rather than 3) movements. In part because of this, it is undoubtedly the ‘grandest’ of the three, the one in which one hears most fully the emergence of Beethoven’s individuality. The opening Presto is heroic – there is no need of the qualifying adjective ‘mock’ here. In the wonderful slow movement (Largo e mesto) which succeeds it, one of the finest slow movements in early Beethoven (for whatever instrumental forces), we approach (at least) the tragic. Romain Rolland, indeed, declared that it is in this movement “that the full grandeur of Beethoven’s soul is first revealed). This performance by Llŷr Williams brought out the full gravity of the music – this was now ‘substance’, not mere ‘gesture’, music intensely moving in its profound sadness, with admixtures of frustration and anger (it is not, surely, irrelevant that it was written at very much the time when Beethoven experienced the first symptoms of his approaching deafness, though the music is ‘about’ something more universal too). In the third movement (Menuetto: Allegro), we have, by way of contrast, music of playful charm, music which would have done credit to any Viennese classicist. There is a more distinctly Beethovenian humour, in the last movement (Rondo: Allegro), boisterous and robust. The emotional diversity of these four movements (each superbly played by Williams) makes this the first of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to approach the comprehensiveness, and the diversity within unity, that we have come to think of as ‘symphonic’.

One of the joys of this ongoing Beethoven cycle by Llŷr Williams has been the perfection with which, through varying his touch at the keyboard and his skillful use of the pedals, he has found the right ‘scale’ of sound for each work, for each phase in the development of Beethoven’s mastery of the piano. We had the interval, after these thoroughly engaging performances of the Opus 10 sonatas, to look forward to the very different ‘sound-world’ which Williams would doubtless conjure up in his performance of the Diabelli Variations, completed approximately 25 years after those sonatas. Williams had given a performance of the work in the early summer of this year, in the Gower Festival, but that, unfortunately was at a time when I was away. However, I heard rapturous reports of it from several friends who were there (including Neil Reeve, another of Seen and Heard’s reviewers). So my expectations were high and, if anything, were even exceeded by what we heard in the second half of this concert.

When it comes to this astonishing work, the only ‘predecessor’ who really matters is Beethoven himself, insofar as this is a kind of summation of all that he had learned to this point, early in the 1820s (and, one might say, also of all that he had lived and observed). Possibly the only relevant predecessors are the keyboard variations of Bach and Handel, most particularly the Goldberg Variations. Yet, like the earlier sonatas, this too is Janus-faced. At the same time  as it looks back at, draws on, all that Beethoven had done hitherto, Opus 120 also constitutes (though Beethoven surely wouldn’t have thought of it in these terms) a kind of encyclopaedic handbook of the piano’s possibilities for those who came after him. There is so much here that anticipates Liszt, Schumann and Brahms.

The Diabelli variations range across many dimensions of human thought and existence. The musical territories the work traverses include solemnity (e.g. Variations 14 and 20), meditative lyricism (e.g. 20-31), intricate fugal writing (e.g. 24 and 32), the comic (in no. 22, with its more or less affectionately parodic treatment of Mozart’s ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ from Don Giovanni) or, more satire than humour, the devastating treatment of Diabelli’s waltz in the forceful chords of Variation 13, the irony in Variation 1’s Alla marcia mockery of the theme and the extraordinary transformation of the theme into a kind of grotesque German dance in Variation 25. Elsewhere a kind of transcendence emerges (as in Variation 20); there are passages of lamentation (as in Variation 29, which has distinctly ‘baroque’ qualities). There is the profound serenity of Variation 30. Such epithets as these, in their simplicity, can only be very approximate and even if such a list were extended, would do little justice to the work’s embrace of so many aspects of human existence. Better, perhaps, just to quote what John Dryden wrote, after surveying the range and diversity of the Canterbury Tales: “He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature … Not a single character has escaped him …’Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty”.

Unleashing sonorities which had been (quite properly)  entirely absent from the Opus 10 sonatas, Williams was a thoroughly persuasive, indeed compelling, advocate of the ‘wonderfully comprehensive nature’ of this work, “one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire” (in the words Llŷr Williams himself used in introducing it). The tumult within the work, its humour, its wisdom, its tenderness and its serenity, its absolute grandeur and its mockery of mere grandiosity, its many moments of dance and of ferocity, of austerity and abundance, of charm and of denunciatory anger – all passed across the listeners’ ears and minds with irresistible momentum and startling clarity. This was a magisterial performance. At moments, between variations, Williams sat quietly with his hands clasped above the keyboard, almost as if paying respect to this astonishing musical summation of the fluctuating possibilities of life itself, or expressing kind of supplicatory respect to a work of art almost more than human. Yet it was, finally, of a wisdom about humanity, in terms both of strength and weakness, that Williams made the Diabelli Variations speak most powerfully.

In all the other concerts in this cycle which I have attended (most of them), the audience refused to let Llŷr Williams leave the stage without giving them/us an encore. This time, although the applause was just as fervent, there was no encore and no sense that the audience felt deprived by its absence. It was as if both performer and audience recognized that anything further that Williams might play could only sound trivial and redundant after the “God’s plenty” of the Diabelli Variations.

Glyn Pursglove

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