Llyr Williams Newbury Spring Festival

Llŷr Williams at Newbury Spring Festival | Live

David Truslove reviews a performance by pianist Llŷr Williams at the Newbury Spring Festival, including pieces by Debussy and Rachmaninov.

As a critically acclaimed Beethoven interpreter with a recent 12 CD box set of sonatas entitled ‘Beethoven Unbound’ to his credit, it was curious to catch Llŷr Williams in a programme without a single note of the German master. While his reputation is built on Beethoven he has an affinity too with Schubert, whose sonatas he will be recording in the next year or so. But his Sunday afternoon recital, as part of the Newbury Spring Festival’s 40th anniversary celebrations, steered away from any recognisable Williams territory and brought together popular Debussy, familiar Rachmaninov and lesser-known corners of Schumann and Scriabin – a programme outlining his gifts across mostly Romantic repertoire.

Judging from a half-full Corn Exchange this selection may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, particularly as Williams chose to begin with an evocation of a funeral procession and end with a work likely to be the least known, notwithstanding its visceral energy and excitement.

But there’s no doubt Williams commands a formidable technique which makes light of the most fiendish demands. Coupled with an acute sensibility and a rigorous intellect he is one of the most gifted players of his generation – as anyone who heard his Mozart Piano Concerto from Hoddinott Hall in April will testify. Like that performance, his playing here on a Steinway grand was marked by the same basic musical principles; clarity and restraint. Those qualities are ideal for Mozart, but do they cut the mustard in Schumann, whose music traverses such emotional high and lows? How does one reconcile restraint with such powerful intensity?

In the case of Schumann’s 4 Klavierstücke Williams achieved this with a modicum of success. Belonging to 1839, these four pieces owe their title to the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and take their inspiration initially from a premonition Schumann had where, according to his letter to Clara Wieck, he kept “seeing funeral processions, coffins and unhappy, despairing people”. An undemonstrative Williams responded to the opening piece with characteristic poise and seemed at home in its trudging rhythms and meandering lines, but the fire and brimstone passages in the second needed to be more explosive.

The interludes of the third were well integrated and hints of more devil-may-care playing brought the first flickering of excitement. It was the chordal sonorities of the fourth that ushered in more involvement which gave rise to playing of heart-easing warmth. Overall the pieces flared intermittently, and their emotional range felt subdued.

Next up was Claude Debussy’s reimagining of the French keyboard tradition in the elegant Suite bergamasque that he completed in 1905. The opening ‘Prélude’ felt reined-in, as if several generations of clavinists were not worthy of celebration. Far more persuasive was the dancing ‘Menuet’, although one sensed a preference for wistfulness over brilliance. This revealed itself again in ‘Clare de lune’, one of the slowest performances I’ve ever heard, yet beautifully manicured in the process, with a gentle lingering here and subtle nuances there, the placing and weighting of chords perfectly judged.

The ‘Passepied’ came as a breath of fresh air – Williams now invigorated and enjoying himself. Much of this came over in ‘L’isle joyeuse’ (one of the most demanding of Debussy’s works) in a performance of wonderful assurance and accuracy. There was power too and, if towards the end the music did not quite dance in the manner of a bacchanal, its exoticism and grandeur were fully realised.

From Debussy the modernist to Sergei Rachmaninov the ultra-conservative, and a selection of Preludes taken from two volumes written across the first decade of the last century. There was a no-nonsense delivery here with Williams consistently producing clear, unfussy playing that had an honesty of expression, if not always fiercely dramatic. But there was compensation in reflection and tenderness – this last bestowed in the opening paragraph of Op. 32 / 9; its mounting tensions suspenseful, and suggestive that Williams could be an ideal, if refreshingly non-sentimental, executor for Rachmaninov. There was cool detachment in Op. 32 / 12, its melancholy and paradoxical sparkling sonorities dispatched with a crisp authority.

The recital concluded with Alexander Scriabin whose extraordinary path from an unambiguous Romantic to startling Progressive is implicit in this single movement Sonata of 1907 once described by the composer as a ‘great poem for the piano’. It’s a rewarding work to which Williams skilfully allied its restless energy and quiet languor with playing of volcanic power and exquisite delicacy. As a rousing close to a recital from a seldom-performed work Llŷr Williams could not have chosen a better piece.

David Truslove is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review’s music section.

Header photo of Llŷr Williams by BG Ealovega

Llŷr Williams, piano

Newbury Spring Festival

Schumann – 4 Nachtstücke, Op.23 
Debussy – Suite bergamasque & L’isle joyeuse
Rachmaninov – Preludes: selections from Op. 23 & 32
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53

13th May 2018 – Corn Exchange, Newbury, Hampshire