United Kingdom R. Schumann: Llŷr Williams (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.1.2024. (CC)
R. Schumann – Papillons, Op.2 (1830/31); Nachtstücke, Op.23 (1839-40); Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26 (1839/40).
This was an album launch event at the Wigmore Hall: Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams’s new all-Schumann twofer comes out his very day on Signum Records. In addition to the above works, it also includes the Fantasie, Op.17, the Humoreske, Op.20 and Davidbündlertänze, Op.6. A record signing was held after the concert.
Llŷr Williams is one of a tranche of talented pianists operating from the UK at the present time. Having heard both the discs and the concert – and both are of the highest standard – experienced live, he has just that touch more authority. What is more, Williams has the perfect grasp of the Wigmore’s tricky acoustic, offering a full dynamic spectrum without over-projecting. His range of keyboard colour is extraordinary, and I wonder if he thinks orchestrally: there was no missing the two-horn fanfare figures towards the end of the finale of Papillons.
Representing early Schumann, Papillons (Butterflies) was a response to Flegeljahre (Fledgeling Years) by ‘Jean-Paul’ (J. P. F. Richter); Schumann recreates a masked ball that appears as part of the story. The story goes that Schumann would improvise dances he imagines at the ball; and eventually he made a selection that forms Papillons. The rhythmic play of No.6 was brilliantly done by Williams. From the opening, it was the cleanliness of Williams’s delivery that impressed. His articulation is perfect, and throughout the recital it became clear he has thought long and hard about pedalling. Technically, everything is there, and completely at the service of the music: left-hand spreads were perfectly calibrated and never once interrupted the course of the music. From scintillating passagework to deeply Romanic introspection (the ‘semplice’ of the seventh movement), this was a fine performance.
From swashbuckling youth to interior musings: the Nachtstücke of 1839/40. Written less than a decade later, this is the flip side of Schumann’s persona. The first is marked ‘Mehr langsam, oft zurückhaltend (Trauerzug)’, and Williams’s tempo felt perfect. The trudge of chords is very of Schumann (one thinks perhaps, in a different setting, of the first of the Op.21 Noveletten). Williams created the perfect sense of dissolution at the end. No missing the ‘marked’ aspect of the second, ’Markirt und lebhaft’ (‘Markirt’ is correct according to the score and used in the CD booklet to the accompanying release; it seemed to be ‘corrected’ to ‘Martkiert’ in the Wigmore Hall freesheet). Some virtuoso playing here, for sure, but also a lovely carillon reference hat had so far eluded me in my experience of these pieces. Single lines spoke volumes, while lyrical themes sang. One of the hardest things to do in piano playing is to play simply (‘Einfach’); this is precisely what Schumann asks for in the fourth and final Nachtstück, and Williams was compelling here. Managing cantabile over rolled chords is not easy, either, and Williams created the most magical effect.
Then, to ‘the other Carnival’: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26 (the title means ‘Carnival Jest from Vienna’). This is one of Schumann’s very finest piano works, and yet I can count the number of times I have heard it live on the fingers of one hand. It famously holds a quotation from the Marseillaise in its first movement. Interestingly, live it felt just a touch more ebullience would have sealed the deal; and the recording actually, to my ears, provides that (the expectation would be the reverse). Williams is superb at pinpointing the contrasts in Schumann’s music by characterising the more resolute passages with pinpoint attack against far more fluid cantabile. An opposition that seemed particularly clear in this first movement. No missing the Marseillaise (and of course, it is not the famous French tune’s only appearance in Schumann, as it turns up again in the song Die beiden Grenadiere); it had been adopted as the French national anthem in 1795, and was written relatively recently (for Schumann, that is) in 1792, ironically in Strasbourg, by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836). While the melody’s appearance might be difficult to miss, Schumann integrates it wonderfully, and Williams presented it perfectly. The first note of the Romanze stabbed at the heart in a way it does not quite do on the recording. This may be a short movement, but it is expansive in expression, and Williams’s performance was mesmeric. A tiny Scherzino was pure joy, hopping about nicely (the themes are rather angular). Of the five movements, it is the fourth that is arguably the most famous, an Intermezzo full of turbulence (its left-hand agitation seems to link to the opening of the Op.17 Fantasie, which Williams also included in his Signum release). The finale’s bright, blazing opening was superb, chattering in its activity, but not in the slightest bit mechanical. So clear and even, full of contrasts, this was the perfect exemplar of what makes Williams’s Schumann so fine.
Williams is one of the few pianists who are equally at home in virtuoso and in lyrical writing, and whose music could better demonstrate this than Schumann’s?
Incidentally, those who follow Williams’s career might know a performance of Schumann’s Liederkreis with Sir Bryn Terfel (DG’s Bryn Terfel: The Verbier Recital) given on July 20, 2011.
A fine recital.
Llŷr Williams appeared on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme on January 11, 2024, discussing this release: the programme is currently freely available via BBC Sounds.