Superlative Janáĉek and Liszt in a Cardiff recital by Llŷr Wiliams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Janáĉek, Britten, and Liszt: Llŷr Wiliams (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff 31.10.2019. (GPu)

Llŷr Wiliams (c) Hannan Images

Robert SchumannPapillons, Op.2

Leoš JanáĉekOn an Overgrown Path

Benjamin BrittenHoliday Diary, Op.5

Franz Liszt – Concert Étude in D-flat major, S.144 No.3, ‘Un Sospiro’; Transcendental Étude, S. 139 No. 3, in F major, ‘Paysage’; Concert Étude in D-flat major, S.145 No.1, ‘Waldesrauschen’; Transcendental Étude, S.139 No. 11 in D-flat major, ‘Harmonies du soir’; Transcendental Étude, S.139 No.10 in F minor.

As evidenced in a number of earlier reviews on these pages, I was much impressed by the cycles of Beethoven and Schubert previously given by Llŷr Williams at the RWCMD. The quality of almost all of Williams’s interpretations and the absolute certainty of his technique, coupled with the opportunity for extended attention to two great bodies of work by major contributors to the piano repertoire made for a compelling and consistently exciting experience. Williams is now following those two cycles by a third, which is not concentrate on the output of a single composer but offers, rather a large-scale ‘anthology’ of works by a variety of composers under the title Pictures in Music (more on that title later). I missed the first concert in this series (when snow and ice prevented my travelling), but I looked forward to this the second concert.

Williams began his programme with Schumann’s Papillons. The twelve short pieces making up this sequence are related to Schumann’s reading of the unfinished novel Flegeljahre by the German romantic writer Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter). Short as Schumann’s pieces are, they abound in inventiveness and, for the most part have the fleetness of movement one associates with butterflies (and, indeed, that sense of metamorphosis which characterizes the life cycle of the butterfly). They are by turns joyous, elegant and angry. They seem to me essentially fanciful. Schumann’s older contemporary S.T. Coleridge (b.1772) made a distinction between fancy and the imagination (a distinction which, in part, he seems to have developed – ironically enough – from his reading of Jean Paul!). He saw the imagination as superior faculty and fancy as its inferior partner. Fancy was, Coleridge asserted, ‘a mode of memory, emancipated from the order of time and place’, while Imagination was a creative power which could reconcile opposites and transform all that it considered. Coleridge’s attempts to define what he called the ‘esemplastic’ power of the imagination often led him into complex metaphysical territories. But, for those, familiar with English poetry he stated the difference very succinctly – ‘Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind’.

The youthful Schumann who wrote Papillons, as opposed to the fully mature composer, also had a ‘very fanciful mind’ – a mind attracted to the delineation of an elaborately ornamented reality, rather than a reality re-made by the imagination. Working from an already existing fiction, Schumann both elaborated and simplified (by overstatement) the emotions of its characters (notably the brothers Walt and Vult and Vina, the woman they both love), in the context of a masked ball. Walt and Vult are precursors of Schumann’s personae Eusebius and Florestan and in a sense their emotions are as much (or more) Schumann’s as those of Jean Paul’s characters. What Papillons offers – if we are to see it as a picture – is a self-portrait. The most successful performances of Papillons, I suggest, involve a scaling down of some of Schumann’s rhetoric, a recognition that this is a work if introspection, not a narrative. Williams took, essentially, the opposite course, making the music more heroic and less introspective, more the narrative of Walt and Vult’s adventures than a portrait of the young Schumann’s inner life. The result wasn’t, unfortunately, much to my taste. There were, of course, good things, notably in the playing of the conclusion of the sequence, in which Williams made the most of Schumann’s use of six accented notes to represent the strokes of a clock as the ball comes to its close and those at the party leave, their gradual departure embodied in a beautifully played diminuendo, as a seven note chord is, as it were, dismantled. Here, where ‘external’ narrative is at the fore of the music, Williams’s approach paid off; in too many other places, however, I felt that his approach threw very little light on the music. For once I found an interpretation by Llŷr Williams disappointing one.

As soon as Williams began to play Janáĉek’s On an Overgrown Path one felt that one was listening to a musician far more in sympathy with the music he was playing. This was an utterly gripping reading, full of sweetness in the almost idyllic opening pieces (though the ominous hints were also articulated impeccably), full of pain, stoic strength and fond memories in the second half of the sequence. The opening ‘Our Evenings’ had a magically wistful quality and ‘A Blown-Away Leaf’ captured the leaf’s wayward flight quite beautifully. The talkative girls of ‘They Chattered Like Swallows’ were properly vivacious; by way of contrast (this is a sequence very much built on antithesis), pieces like ‘Unutterable Anguish’ and ‘In Tears’ were heartrendingly bleak expressions of the composer’s grief at the loss of his daughter Olga. If my earlier distinction has any validity this was, decidedly, ‘imaginative’, rather than ‘fanciful’, music. Any disappointment I had felt at Williams’s interpretation of Papillons was forgotten in my admiration of this moving and beautifully structured reading of On an Overgrown Path.

The four pieces which make up Benjamin Britten’s Holiday Diary are pleasant, though relatively slight. In his spoken introduction to the work (the only work on the programme where Williams used a score) Williams told his audience that this musical ‘diary’ related to a holiday the composer spent with his brother Robert, headmaster of a preparatory school in Prestatyn on the North Wales coast. Other discussions I have read see the music as related to Britten’s life in Suffolk. Given that Williams is a native of North Wales (his father, incidentally, is a distinguished Welsh-Language poet) it is natural that he should want to ‘claim’ Britten’s suite for his own part of the world. I am not enough of a Britten scholar to be able to say who is right and who is wrong in locating these pieces ‘geographically’. It matters little, in any case, since the titles of these pieces (‘Early Morning Bathe’, ‘Sailing’, ‘Funfair’ and ‘Night’) are general rather than particular. Holiday Diary was written in 1934, when Britten was 20. The descriptive writing anticipates, in some ways, Britten’s later scores for the cinema. Although essentially descriptive, Britten’s writing keeps established musical forms in mind at pretty well all times. So, for example, in ‘Sailing’ the implied narrative involves a brief voyage which is initially calm, even serene, before it is disturbed by a brief storm, after which the earlier calmness returns – the use of a traditional ABA form is very clear. The hectic ‘Funfair’ (I am not sure one would – or needs to – imagine that particular ‘subject’ when listening to the piece) is essentially a toccata. ‘Night’ is, naturally enough, a nocturne – albeit an exceedingly slow and fragmented one. Williams played the first three pieces with wit and dash, while allowing ‘Night’ to take its meandering and largely uneventful course.

The close of the recital, however, was far from uneventful, being made up of a small selection (five) of Liszt’s Études. Williams’s absolute command of the keyboard (and pedals!) meant that the sheer difficulty of the seemed to present few issues and, happily, his responsiveness to the poetry of these particular Études was of a high order too. ‘Paysage’ was radiantly serene, its repetitive theme leading organically to an impressive climax; Williams’s reading of  ‘Harmonies du Soir’ brought out all the considerable beauty of its melody and its sense of growing passion; the restlessness and power of the Transcendental Étude in F minor were intensely felt and almost overwhelming. The rhythms and phrasing of ‘Waldesrauschen’ were wonderfully subtle, and ‘Un Sospiro’, full of cross-handed complexities was yet equally full of tender poetry. Williams is a particularly fine interpreter of Liszt (perhaps one day he will give us a cycle of Liszt?), and these Études showed us the pianist at his very best.

Without opening a lengthy terminological discussion and without, I hope, being excessively pedantic I have to say that I am uneasy about the use of the word ‘Pictures’ in the title Williams has given to his latest cycle of recitals. The word suggests music which creates specific visual images in the hearer’s mind. But, to take examples only from the present recital, a number of the pieces in Papillons don’t, I would suggest, stimulate primarily visual images, and what are we supposed to ‘see’ when listening to pieces such as ‘Come With Us’, ‘Words Fail’ or ‘Unutterable Anguish’ by Janáĉek?. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call pieces such as these ‘tone poems’ – poems, after all, present ideas, emotions and much else – as well as visual images. Though the term ‘tone poems’ is generally associated with orchestral music, (The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it thus: ‘a piece of music for orchestra that represents a particular story, image, or mood’). But we should remember that the earliest use of it (as ‘Tondichtung’) was made with reference to a work for piano solo – Carl Loewe’s Mazeppa (1828). Is there any reason why we shouldn’t nowadays think of pieces (such as all those Williams played on this occasion) as tone poems? Any such term – whether ‘pictures’ or ‘tone poems’ – assumes, of course, that we give credence to the distinction between ‘absolute’ music and ‘programme’ music. Are these two really absolutely distinct? We might usefully recall something Liszt himself wrote in a letter of 1845: ‘musical works which in a general sense follow a programme will take effect on imagination and emotion; … all beautiful music must … always satisfy the absolute rules of music’.

Glyn Pursglove

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