Llyr Williams review: Pace setter

Welsh pianist's performances of music by Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov demonstrate exquisite control of tempo and pacing


It’s been a great season for piano playing in Portland. We’ve had Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough, probably the two finest pianists in the world today, with the Oregon Symphony. We’ve had the talented duo Stephanie & Saar plus a bunch of local pianists playing Fredric Rzewski’s monumental The People United Will Never Be Defeated in Portland Piano Company’s Makrokosmos Project. We had young George Li, who may be the successor to Hamelin and Hough, in Portland Piano International’s valuable series. We had Wu Han playing chamber music and a concerto in Chamber Music Northwest’s Passions United program. And others from Jeffrey Kahane to Anderson & Roe and more.

Now comes Welshman Llyr Williams, again with Portland Piano International, in two different recital programs in PSU’s Lincoln Hall on April 1st and 2nd. Besides great technical skill and interpretive flair, what distinguishes these pianists from lesser colleagues and from each other?

In earlier ArtsWatch reviews I’ve described the playing of Hamelin, Hough, the pianists in the Rzewski show, Li, and Han. What, then, makes Mr. Williams different?

Llyr Williams performed at Portland Piano International.

Granted, among players of this calibre, differences are subtle. On the evidence of the April 2nd concert, Mr. Williams shows great and seemingly effortless technical brilliance, but so do Hamelin and Hough. The Welshman is a sensitive and bold interpreter of disparate composers, but so are all the others. Along with superb technique and heartfelt music taste, what especially distinguishes Mr. Williams’s playing is a remarkably fluid sense of tempo and uniquely keen feel for pacing, an attention to the distance between the notes that makes his choices, however phrased, seem inevitable.

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 7, the so-called “Grand Sonata,” this ability took the form of making a seamless whole of a movement containing wild contrasts in tempos. In the second-movement Largo con gran espressione, Beethoven’s key change from E-flat to C signals an entirely different approach, an invitation to a sort of smooth and cantabile playing that Beethoven favored over the earlier Mozartean style of crisp attack, more suited to the harpsichord. Here Mr. Williams created a lovely and almost (but not quite) static tonal picture that was one of the highlights of the afternoon’s concert. Thereafter, in the third and fourth movements’ Allegros, his rhythms and tempos produced a suave, if restrained, conclusion. The Fourth is an early (1797) Beethoven sonata that, despite its title and length, ends quietly.

In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, written in 1809 on a generous commission from another composer and pianist, Muzio Clementi, the scale is smaller: just two movements totaling ten minutes. In this merry piece, dedicated to Beethoven’s  friend Countess Theresa Josepha Anna Johanna Aloysia Brunsvik de Korompa (whew!), the composer briefly introduces the opening of a favorite tune of his, Rule Brittania, and also jumps with abandon from feathery passages to louder chords. Mr. Williams rendered these with his customary feel for the relationship of contrasting notes, a technique that tied the sonata together as if it were a single (if many-faceted) musical statement.

Two more of the greatest composers for piano occupied the second half of the program: Chopin and Rachmaninov. Representing Chopin was the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, one of the Pole’s most lauded compositions. Here Mr. Williams preserved his seemingly innate attention to pace while giving us, in the slow passages within this 13-minute piece, a sort of lyricism quite different from Beethoven’s, a signature Chopin dreaminess. Lovely playing.

Sergei Rachmaninov made his appearance in a rarer presentation: ten of the composer’s 24 preludes, written in all the major and minor keys in partial emulation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin’s Twelve Preludes. Rachmaninov’s pieces, which range from two to five-and-a-half minutes in length, are more often used as concert encores than programmed together. They show the range of Rachmaninov’s composing skills and tastes, emphasizing tonalities and rhythms more than his better-known cantabile melodies, familiar from his piano concertos. Mr. Williams moved from one to another, from Largo to Allegro to Moderato to Lento, with a keen sense of contrast and easy grace.

The final selection, Op. 23, No. 2 in B-flat Major, marked Maestoso, was a true showpiece that enabled our pianist to end with an appropriate flourish, bringing the audience to their feet in the first of two standing ovations. The second of these ovations came after a short, delicate encore by Edvard Grieg, which earned concert-goers a second Grieg piece by way of farewell.

Recommended recordings

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 4
Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon 4778806), 2013.
Sviatoslav Richter (Alto ALC1158), 2011.

• Beethoven, Sonata No. 24
Claudio Arrau (Testament SBT21351), 2004.
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon 413766-2), 1984.

• Chopin, Fantaisie in F minor
Murray Perahia Plays Chopin (Sony Classical Masters 88843062432), 2014.
Michelangeli Plays Chopin (Opus Arte OA0940D), 1962.
Wilhelm Kempff, Vol. 10 (Documents 297641), 1954, 1958.

• Rachmaninov, Preludes
Rustem Hayroudinoff (Chandos 10107), 2003.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 4676852), 1975.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    What a shame & lost opportunity that this pianist didn’t perform anything by a contemporary Welsh composer.

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