Nigel Jarrett was at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama’s Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff on January 30 for the third in a series of themed recitals by the celebrated Welsh pianist Llyr Williams.
Spanish music has the French to thank for a musical mode – impressionism – that enabled it to embody the Iberian sunshine and its play of light. But Spain also had Moorish influence to draw upon, while France’s Arabian links were fraught and established through colonialism. So there are differences that come through in the music. Though the ‘Impressionist’ painters were realists in exploring the changing illumination of everyday scenes, their counterparts in musical composition sought similar effects in terms of sound. The picturesque – encouraged by the titles of compositions – is thus a product of suggestion rather than essence. A title such as Jeux d’eau, which Ravel gave to his scintillating piano piece, is mere label, the fluidity of sound being more important than any visual evocation. Or not.
Llyr Williams calls his ongoing series of recitals at the RWCMD ‘Pictures in Music’ but ensures that reminders of places seen make no more of an impression than what the music gets up to. In this opening Ravel piece, it gets up to a lot that Liszt would have admired, as its in his tradition of keyboard brilliance. A musician of secure international class and having included music by the older Debussy in his programme, Williams would surely have been aware too of how much musicians contemporary with each other were and are mutually admiring and influential. The liquidity is there in Jeux d’eau but it is as much to do with the repeated juxtaposition of harmonies as with images conjured, both of which Williams essayed to perfection as well as pointing up the sheer grandeur of the work.
The monumental was repeated in Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse. It’s a monument to exuberance and good feeling, though its strict visual reference is remote – Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement pour Cythère, whose source of joy is even further removed in historic, pictorial, and social scale – and at odds with the immediacy that Williams was intent on conveying. That opening trill, made to sound like murmurations in the air, established the mood right away. Williams’s ability to sustain such moods and even enrich them here in the two themes that connote the Arcadian and the maritime (more liquidity) was common to everything he played. And he always knows when an apotheosis is looming.
The work was preceded by two selections from the first and second books of Debussy’s Images – Reflets dans l’eau and Cloches à travers les feuilles – that required the pianist to descend from its triumphalism with a featherweight touch across the length of the keyboard. In the first, the lower register stasis was contrasted exquisitely with the flickering light of the upper, and in the second there was more contradistinction between sustained chords, right-hand figurations and two-note bell sounds. Ravel did bells, too, La vallée des cloches from Miroirs maybe overdoing them. From Miroirs we also had Noctuelles, with its stress pattern changes and rhythmic conflicts.
The foregoing indicates how much subtlety of register was required in albeit relatively short bursts. It’s a truism that such delicacy in the Ravel-Debussy repertory is clearly notated yet rendered fugitive by too literal a reading. Williams was always up for resolution of this paradox, and it didn’t affect the more straightforward approach to the Quejas, o La Maja y el ruiseñor, the lament from Granados’s piano cycle Goyescas. Slotted between Ravel and Debussy in the first half with three items from Suburbis by the quirky Catalan composer Mompou, it signalled a shift of focus from external things and events – shimmering liquidity and all that – to undecorated human concerns. That said, Mompou had Satie’s eccentric touch, so El carrer, el guitarrista I el vell cavall,
Gitana, and Jeunes filles au jardin were drawn with a lingering sense of the scenic and quirky score marks, to which the pianist added loads of charm and sensitivity.
Williams returned to the fray after the interval for books one and two of Iberia by Albeniz. It’s a work that probably couldn’t have been written in the way it was without echoes of French music’s influence. As Stephen Walsh intimates in his recent book on Debussy, musical impressionism goes straight to the interior content of things and specific external references are added later, as labels or reinforcements. For Albeniz, events were paramount in this travelogue-cum-tapestry of Spain; for example, the religious festivities enshrined in Fête-Dieu à Seville that ends the first book and in which for a nano-second Williams, the model of nonchalance and ease in music of ferocious difficulty, seemed to hesitate. Not that many would have noticed; even this reviewer, almost blinded by his skill and composure, may have mistaken hesitancy for sleight-of-hand. These were vivid reminders of Southern Spain for anyone who’s been there, from sultry villages to bustling ports, and employing the country’s dance rhythms and other features redolent of Moorish antecedents.
Considering his high stature, Williams does not make himself scarce in Cardiff and the rest of Wales. That’s our good fortune, the latest portion of which he bestowed in a performance of sometimes astonishing rigour and refinement. It was also good to hear him talk about the music.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts prize. He is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review, and the author of five books, including the widely-praised story collection, Funderland. Templar published his story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, last year. We was formerly music critic of the South Wales Argus newspaper.
Banner Image Credit: BG Ealovega