Britten 100: Llŷr Williams and ‘Friday Afternoons’

Gregynog Festival Gala Recital

Llŷr Williams, piano

Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum Cardiff

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Friday Afternoons by Benjamin Britten

Glanfa Stage, Wales Millenium Centre

 

22nd November 2013

As a final flourish in their Great Britten season, the 2013 Gregynog Festival invited Llŷr Williams – surely one of the greatest of all Welsh pianists – to perform in the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in the National Museum in Cardiff. The date chosen was the actual 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten, as well as being the date dedicated to the memory of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. The venue was the place where Britten and Peter Pears gave a performance together in 1967, five years before they went to Gregynog. All this should surely have been enough to give Britten an almost palpable presence in the room, especially as it does not look as if it has been refurbished since Britten and Pears were there.

While I could imagine Britten and Pears sitting across the hall from me, smiles on their faces, Britten’s music for the piano is not his greatest, although Llŷr Williams certainly got from it all he could. The Notturno, composed as a set piece for the 1963 Leeds International Piano Competition, was a set of challenges for the pianist rather than a piece which was satisfying to the ear. Britten achieved a more effective evocation of night in the fourth of the pieces in Holiday Diary, written when he was 23. Llŷr Williams, in his amusing introduction about how these might have been set in Prestatyn, drew our attention to the descriptive nature of the pieces, with the bather in Early morning bathe stepping into the water tentatively before swimming confidently. The Funfair described in the third piece was clearly a busy place, though with rather different sounds from those of the Winter Wonderland Fair taking place a stone’s throw away on the City Hall Lawn. I imagined I heard hammers coming down and ringing up prizes – funfairs might well have been like that in the 1930s.

The rest of the programme was given over to works by composers important to Britten. Llŷr Williams combined precision with elasticity in his performance of Haydn’s Sonata in C Major with which he opened the recital. He thought each of Haydn’s new thoughts anew, illuminating the piece in a way which Britten would surely have loved to have heard. Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie sparkled under his fingers in a way which the composer freely admitted he could never achieve himself, famously saying ‘the devil may play it’ as he was unable to do so himself.

For me the most satisfying and enjoyable piece in the concert was Frank Bridge’s Sonata, in which he expressed his feelings about the horrors of World War I. Like Britten, he was a pacifist. I heard someone sitting behind me in the audience say that they had never heard of ‘this Frank Bridge’. He is best known for being Britten’s composition tutor, but deserves to be better known for his own compositions too. His piano sonata is a work which does not give up all its secrets on a first hearing, but is surely the stronger for that. Llŷr Williams helpfully prepared our ears by describing the outer movements as being full of the horrors of war, while the reflective inner movement perhaps looked forward or back to more peaceful times, with a pastoral feel. He also pointed out in advance the way in which Bridge used material to frame the piece, an approach which Britten subsequently used in some of his own compositions.

As an encore, Llŷr Williams gave us the merest fragment of Schoenberg – I’m guessing because it was first published in 1913! I think Ben would have appreciated that.

 

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As part of the Britten birthday celebrations Aldeburgh Music – present-day organisers of the Aldeburgh Festival – were aiming to involve at least 100,000 children in the UK singing Britten’s song cycle Friday Afternoons on the afternoon of his 100th birthday. The cycle was written for the boys of Clive House Preparatory School in Prestatyn where Britten’s brother Robert was Headmaster.

The project became a worldwide one, involving in the event children on four continents, and live streaming of several of the performances. I watched a multi-ethnic group of children from Mount Stuart, Grangetown and St Mary Primary Schools in Cardiff Bay singing on the Glanfa Stage at the Wales Millenium Centre, and wondered what they all made of these songs written for boys in a public school. All credit to their teachers and to the staff in WNO Youth and Community staff for their work on this, and to the children for learning a good deal more music and (especially) words than many of us could. I’m sure they’ll remember the experience and that at least some of them will tell their children and grandchildren in due course about what they did on Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday.