Magnificent Performances of Beethoven Sonatas from Llyr Williams

Seen and Heard International

This was the first concert in Year 2 of Llyr Williams’s complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano sonatas (a cycle being given in Cardiff and London – at the Wigmore Hall). I am tempted to say that the concert might be reviewed in a single word – Magnificent! But, on reflection, that single word (though thoroughly justified) might not necessarily imply those qualities of profound musical intelligence, warm humanity and formidable technique with which all that we heard was imbued.

All the music in this recital belongs to a period of just four years – from 1800, when Opus 22 was written to 1804 (in which year all the other three works in the programme seem to have been completed).

The Sonata in B flat (Opus 22) is a Janus-faced work, looking both forwards and backwards, stylistically speaking. As played by Llyr Williams one realized how ‘maturely’ Beethovenian the opening movement (allegro con brio) was, even if, like the third  movement (menuetto), it also recalled Mozart and Haydn. Williams seemed to ‘allow’, as it were, the thematic materials of the first movement to grow and burgeon organically, to bubble up in various directions like a mountain spring. It felt as if (though such language is doubtless hyperbolic) Beethoven’s music was playing though him, rather than being played by him. The second movement (adagio con molto expression) is more fully ‘romantic’ than its predecessor and was played with expressive delicacy by Williams and with a profound lyricism that was never remotely in danger of becoming sentimental. The decidedly Haydnesque opening of the minuet is succeeded by some troubled ‘explosions’ in the trio as well as some unexpected colours, illustrations (perhaps one should say enactments) of the way that Beethoven’s use of the piano was changing, even before he acquired his Erard piano in 1803). 

I have long felt that the two movement Sonata in F, Opus 54 is a fine work too often overlooked or neglected. This performance of it by Llyr Williams must surely have alerted more than a few of his listeners to something of the same recognition. The sonata’s two movements, (marked, respectively ‘In tempo d’un Menuetto’ and ‘Allegretto’) were the occasion for some outstanding playing by Williams. In the first movement the music’s character is defined by the presence of two fiercely contrasted elements, a smoothly graceful opening theme (Beethoven’s debt to Haydn still very much evident) and a far more dramatic theme in eighth-note triplets. Williams brought out the contrast very vividly. 

Llyr Williams’ performance was incandescent in its passion and also its profound sense of that Beethovenian vision of order which is at the heart of the whole work; and, as those who have heard Williams before will not be surprised to hear, it was technically perfect. But, vitally, at all points the virtuosity was free of any self-regard and without of any sense of display, being entirely at the service of the music. As is well-known, the first version of this sonata included, as its second movement an andante some 8 or 9 minutes long. Beethoven is said to have been persuaded by friends that the presence of this movement would make the sonata as a whole unacceptably lengthy. If this story is true, one finds it surprising that Beethoven would have accepted such advice for such a reason. Perhaps he chose to omit it in part because, beautiful as it is, the movement was stylistically, and, one might say ‘temperamentally’ at odds with those either side of it, being more ‘personal in mood and thrust – not without good reason did Romain Rolland describe it as “this andante [into which Beethoven put] many of his more intimate emotions at this period of his life”.

After these captivating and absolutely persuasive readings, the response of a packed hall was rightly rapturous and lengthy. Though he must surely have been tired, the pianist responded with two encores – both by Scriabin! – the brief ‘Désir’ (the first of the two morceaux making up the composers, Opus 57 and the Étude in  D-sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 12. Both were finely played, the first providing some tranquil beauty in miniature after the power and scale of the Waldstein, the second, taken pretty fast, being a closing display both of Williams’s virtuosity and his sense of the poetic.

In short – it was magnificent!

Read the rest of the review here