‘Entirely Musician’: High Romantic Passion Abounds in Llŷr Williams’ Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Llŷr Williams (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 15.6.2017. (GPu)

Llyr Williams; photo credit - Benjamin Ealovega.
Llyr Williams (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Wagner/Liszt – Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi;  Spinning Song’ from Flying Dutchman, ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser;‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde
Schubert/Liszt – ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’
Schubert/Godowsky – ‘Morgengruss’
Liszt – Sonetto del Petrarca no. 104, S.161, no.5
Verdi/Liszt Rigoletto – Paraphrase de Concert

In the week of the Cardiff Singer of the World contest (and its concurrent Song Prize, in which he has for some time been a much-admired accompanist), it was entirely fitting that Llŷr Williams should give a lunchtime recital (under the title ‘Songs Without Voices’) of piano music closely related to songs and singing. His programme was largely focused on Liszt.

Throughout we were fortunate to hear Williams at something like his very considerable best. His outstandingly sure and sometimes dazzling technique, balanced by his intense emotional investment in everything he plays, his analytical musical mind and his prodigious memory – all were amply evidenced. As one of the Austrian friends then staying with us (both experienced choral singers) who accompanied my wife and I to the concert said afterwards – “He is entirely musician, in hands, feet, heart, mind and spirit”. With grandeur and power, sensitivity and delicacy all drawn on as appropriate, in playing of sometimes startling fluency, Williams demonstrated very eloquently just how much High Romantic passion can be found in this repertoire.

This area of Liszt’s work is often talked of in terms of ‘transcription’. The word, it seems to me, cannot entirely escape implications of being a relatively menial and ‘literal’ kind of activity – however useful it may be. (Think, for example, of what is involved in ‘transcribing’ a recorded interview for print publication). I would prefer to think in terms of ‘translation’ – an activity with implications of greater creativity. As long ago as the Seventeenth Century (in the Preface to his 1680 version of Ovid’s Epistles) John Dryden distinguished three kinds of translation.

The first he called “metaphrase”, which involved “turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language to another”. The musical equivalent, “turning” a work for orchestra ‘note by note, and bar by bar’ into a work for piano is clear.

Dryden’s second category was “paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not altered”. Dryden’s third category is “that of imitation, where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases” (It is striking that Dryden should resort to musical imagery at this point).

In Dryden’s terms, most of Liszt’s piano versions of vocal music are examples of ‘paraphrase’ or imitation’. They involve, that is, much more creativity and originality on his part than is the case in the humbler kind of ‘metaphrase’ transcription. So, for example, his piece based on Verdi’s Rigoletto, although described, coincidentally, as a “Concert Paraphrase” is really, in Dryden’s terminology, an ‘imitation’, since, though it is based on thematic materials taken from Verdi’s opera, it neither adheres to the original’s narrative sequence nor attempts any kind of fidelity to Verdi’s stylistic traits. Rather, it turns what it ‘borrows’ into a virtuosic work which owes far more to Liszt than to Verdi. Much the same might be said of the ‘Fantasy on themes from Rienzi’, although this is a good deal more ‘Wagnerian’ than the ‘Rigoletto – paraphrase’ is Verdian. Perhaps for both biographical and musical reasons Liszt wanted to remain more ‘faithful’ to Wagner than he did to Verdi. In Liszt’s version of the ‘Liebestod’, in particular, his creativity seems to reside chiefly in the deployment of his skill and imagination with which he seeks to find pianistic ways of representing (translating) Wagner’s orchestral writing than in any attempt to re-conceive the original music.

In some of the earlier work in Williams’s programme, such as the version of ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, Liszt comes closer to metaphrase, with more of Schubert’s original melodies and harmonies surviving in the ‘translated’ version. In playing all these pieces, Llŷr Williams audibly respected, and reacted to, the different kind of musical ‘translation’ that Liszt had undertaken.

There were many memorable highlights in the resulting performances, from the all-pervading sense of drama in the ‘Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi’ to the rippling, glittering water at the opening of ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, from the clarity with which the four voices in the Act III quartet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ were delineated in the ‘Rigoletto Paraphrase’ to the beauty of line in Liszt’s version of ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ or from the controlled passion of the Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104 to the rapid gracefulness with which the ‘Spinning Song’ from the Flying Dutchman opened.

In truth, every single item in the programme was played with equal proportions of commitment and judgement, and the result was a celebration of a musical genre too easily (and too often) underrated, which both gave much delight and provoked plenty of thought.

Glyn Pursglove

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