Llŷr Williams Impresses and Delights in a Wide-ranging Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Britten, Albeniz, Granados, Mompou, Liszt: Llŷr Williams (piano). The Great Hall, Swansea University. 8.10.2017. (GPu)

Debussy Suite bergamasque, L.75; L’isle joyeuse, L.82
Britten Holiday Diary, Op.5
Albéniz – ‘El puerto’ (from Iberia)
Granados ‘Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor’ (from Goyescas, Op.11)
Mompou – ‘El carrer, el guitarrista i el vell cavall’ (from Suburbis); ‘Jeune filles au jardin’ (from Scenes denfants); ‘Cançons i danses, No.8
Liszt – Réminiscences de ‘Norma’ (Bellini) Grande Fantasie, S.394

I should admit from the outset of this review that I am a card-carrying admirer of Llŷr Williams. Though he now has a considerable international reputation, in earlier years he performed very extensively in his native Wales (where I have now lived for more than 40 years), so that I was able to hear him frequently and to watch his work mature, in musical insight and technical certainty alike. Over the years, and especially recently, I have most often heard him playing Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. However, for this recital, given as part of the Swansea International Festival, he eschewed the Austro-German repertoire and embraced the piano music of France, Spain and England, while also finding room for a substantial work by another of his favourites, Liszt.

I am not, as yet, wholly convinced that Williams is temperamentally suited to the music of Debussy. Williams has a powerfully analytical mind and one of the great virtues of his playing of Beethoven, for example, is the clarity (without exaggeration) with which he delineates the architectural structures of the music. In some of the so-called French ‘impressionist’ repertoire this is not the primary quality needed, I’d suggest. In parts of the Suite bergamasque, made up of four pieces three of them named after, and influenced by, forms used by the French harpsichordists of the late baroque, especially the first, the Prelude, the second, Menuet and the closing Passepied (which Debussy titled ‘Pavane’ before a last-minute change of mind, Williams’ analytical approach worked very well, especially with regard to the ternary form of the Prelude. In the third piece of the suite, ‘Clair de lune’, it is a less obviously appropriate approach, where something approximating an absolute in fluidity seems called for. Though Williams’ use of rubato was relatively pronounced, and there was much that was very sensitive in his playing, I didn’t find his reading of ‘Clair de lune’ completely persuasive. I felt much the same way about his reading of L’isle joyeuse, which for all its vivacity and poetry had a certain stiffness, perhaps because Williams was unduly respectful of the modified sonata form which underlies the piece. So, as far as Williams’s Debussy was concerned, I found much to admire, but also had some reservations. In fairness, I should say that in post-concert conversations with several very good judges, whose views I respect, not a single one of them shared my reservations!

In the much less ambiguous music of Britten’s Holiday Diary (written in 1934, at the age of 21), Williams was a delightfully persuasive advocate, revelling in the musical pictures painted in Britten’s four pieces. Williams’s colours, to stay with the painting metaphor, were bright and vivid throughout. These four pieces, still not often played, are full of youthful joy and energy. In ‘Early Morning Bathe’ Williams evoked for his audience a bather making his way, uncomfortably, across a pebbled beach, reacting to the coldness of the water, swimming against the current (a theme in the left hand ‘breasting’, as it were, some forceful arpeggios) and finally settling within the comfort of a dry towel. In ‘Sailing’ the placid opening speaks of a calm sea with a slight breeze, until a rising wind briefly disturbs things, before calmness returns. It is interesting (and instructive) to reflect on how this simple and short, early piece relates to Britten’s later, larger ‘Sea’ music. ‘Funfair’ fuses toccata and rondo, almost garishly colourful and vigorous in its depiction of rapidly ascending and descending fairground rides, by means of rapid upward and downward runs across the keyboard, which Williams clearly relished and played exhilaratingly. ‘Night’ is a (very) slow settling down after the excitement of the day; it makes, I think, a rather weak and slightly anti-climactic conclusion to the suite, though Holiday Diary as a whole certainly deserves to be programmed more often than it is.

Williams opened the second half of his recital with a mini-anthology of Spanish piano music, with pieces by Albéniz, Granados and Mompou. He proved to be a fine interpreter of most of this music, commanding the keyboard, powerful and delicate as the scores required and his touch excellent at both extremes. He obviously felt very much at home with this repertoire and I hope he will play (and record?) more of it. He began with ‘El Puerto’, from Book I of Iberia, a representation (not only ‘visually’) of the port town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, on the bay of Cadiz some five or six miles north east of Cadiz itself. Williams brought to this technically difficult piece all the strength of finger, and rhythmic judgement, that it needs. In what is essentially a sophisticated zapateado (a traditional Andalucian dance in 6/8) Williams captured the atmosphere of Andalacia quite brilliantly, making one forget how difficult the piece is (as many an over-ambitious pianist has discovered!). This was followed by a well-shaped and fully characterized performance of Granados’ ‘Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor’ (Complaint, or the Maiden and the Nightingale’)a piece which evokes one of the richest strands of European (and Middle-Eastern) love poetry, especially when Granados’ trills in imitation of the nightingale are played so memorably well.

I didn’t find Williams’s Mompou quite so compelling – or at least not consistently so. Mompou’s is piano music stripped to essentials, in which the notes played seem very often to be tempted by the attractions of silence. So distinctive (perhaps unique) is Mompou’s idiom that I find it difficult to judge performances of his work in most of the orthodox ways. For me it seems to come down to how thoroughly the pianist puts me in a mild hypnotic trance – still aware, but living at a different ‘speed’. Applying this admittedly unconventional test, it was ‘Jeunes filles en jardin’ which worked best. Despite its title (and indeed the title of the collection from which it comes: Scènes d’enfants) there is little that is directly ‘pictorial’ about this piece, which creates mood and ‘represents’ the spirit of innocent playfulness rather than evoking visual images. Williams’ reading of the piece was beautifully delicate and restrained, capturing its highly distinctive idiom just about perfectly. In the eighth of Mompou’s Cançons i danses , the shift from the melancholy of the initial song to the graceful folk-like Catalonian dance which follows was nicely etched, though without over-emphasis. Williams had opened the Mompou section of his programme with ‘El carrer, el guitarrista i el vell cavall’ (‘The street, the guitarist and the old horse’), an awkward piece in which Mompou seeks to marry some Granados-like pictorialism with his own distinctive approach to piano sonorities. It isn’t a marriage that really works (it doesn’t quite come off in the composer’s own 1974 recording) and, not surprisingly, Williams didn’t make it entirely successful.

The recital closed magnificently with Liszt’s miniscences de ‘Norma’, one of Romanticism’s greatest and most impassioned virtuoso works for piano. Williams is a masterful player of Liszt. Whenever I hear him playing Liszt, I am reminded of something Aaron Copland wrote about Liszt (in Music and Imagination), discussing how “he transformed the piano, bringing out not only its inherent qualities, but its evocative nature as well: the piano as an orchestra, the piano as harp, the piano as cembalum, the piano as organ, as brass choir”, to which list Copland goes on to add “the percussive piano” and to which we might further add “the human voice raised in song”.

Described as a ‘Grand Fantasie’ when published, this is a work which make for dazzling, stunning listening when played with the necessary certainty of technique and musical insight (both of which Llŷr Williams brought to his performance). It is, like the opera it re-makes, a great song of love and death, so ‘great’ that one is tempted to call it an epic, even if it does last well under twenty minutes. Liszt treats his ‘source’ with great freedom, not presenting the themes he adopts and manipulates in the order in which they occur in Norma itself; at the close he injects a sense of triumph – presumably seeing self-sacrificing love as a kind of victory – which is at odds with end of Bellini’s opera; he omits the work’s most celebrated aria, ‘Casta Diva’. In short, the whole is a massive appropriation and re-creation, many miles away from any idea of ‘transcription’. This is a re-making of Bellini’s work in Liszt’s own image. The result, certainly in this performance, has great emotional depth and weight. The music may demand a virtuoso performer, but the many technical difficulties are a means, not an end in themselves. Williams presented us with a magnetic reading of the work, an aural kaleidoscope of emotions and colours, in which the judicious use of silence was also impressively effective. The loving attention to detail was reconciled with the larger sweep of Liszt’s music. It was, indeed, a performance both magisterial and touching.

Glyn Pursglove

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