Interview with Llŷr Williams – “…I think in Beethoven there is an ideal marriage between the technical and the musical.”

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Llŷr Williams
Photograph: John Ferro Sims

Llŷr Williams is joining the elite company of Maurizio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim and John Lill, becoming the latest pianist to embark on a cycle of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in London. His cycle will run concurrently at Wigmore Hall and the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. The first instalment was completed in October 2014 with accounts of the Opus 2 group of Sonatas and the ‘Appassionata’. His second Wigmore recital is on February 25 and it is at the London venue that Llŷr has generously travelled from his home-town of Wrexham to meet with me backstage.

I begin by asking Llŷr how he would decide on the order of a Beethoven cycle. “I’ve done it various ways. The first time I did a cycle I did it more or less chronologically, which is good because it gives people a sense of the variety between the Sonatas Beethoven was composing at the same time. One of the problems is that the early Sonatas do not sell so well, and if you do them in order you have got a lot of very dense and musically challenging pieces together at the end. Now I’m dividing them up a bit, so that you have at least one named Sonata in each programme, which is always a good selling point to start with, and then some lesser-known ones around that. I’m also putting in extra pieces like some of the Variations and the Fantasy. It’s a nine-concert cycle, and there is more material needed than the 32 Sonatas can provide, so that fills it up a bit.”

To illustrate his point the next instalment of Williams’s cycle in February takes the pairs of Sonatas Opuses 14 and 27, teaming them with the Fantasy and also the Variations in F major. Then, in May, Williams tackles the group of three Sonatas that are Opus 31. Does he regard these as a pivotal group within the cycle? “I think we’re quite lucky in the way we put the Sonatas together, because we have one group at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. The Opus 2, then the Opus 31 set of three, and then the last three Sonatas which have got separate opus numbers – but I think if Beethoven had written the latter in an earlier time he would have labelled them Opus 109, 1, 2 and 3, because they obviously belong together as a trilogy. They are more meaty pieces which is no doubt why they have separate opus numbers. All these groups of Sonatas have a characteristic: there is usually one in the minor key, and one that is more lyrical, and this is exactly what happens in Opus 31. The first one (in G major) is a humorous piece, where the two hands never quite play together. Alfred Brendel describes it as a musical joke, but I think it’s almost like musical anarchy, and that Beethoven is trying to be naughty. This is followed by the ‘Tempest’, a minor-key work that is very turbulent, and then No.3 which is different again; it has a different approach because of the E flat major tonality. I think they have to be played together as a totality in one concert. Whether you can describe them as a pivotal group I’m not sure, because I’m not sure where the early period ends and the middle period begins as it were, in the Sonatas. In his different bodies of work Beethoven was thinking forward more in the Sonatas than he was in the early Symphonies which are more conservative. I think he got to the middle period earlier in the Sonatas than he did elsewhere, at different times.”

Llŷr Williams
Photograph: John Ferro Sims

When learning the Sonatas, Williams is happy to refer to recorded versions. “When I am learning it for the first time I use other versions, yes, but once I have played it so many times I find I don’t need the recordings any more, I find them annoying once I’ve found my own way of doing it. You need to listen to people at the beginning to get an idea of the performing traditions of the piece.” Which begs the question – whose Beethoven did he experience? “I listened to Emil Gilels, he has a magisterial way of playing them that has not been matched by anybody since, I don’t think, and he didn’t quite complete the cycle of course. I used some of the live Richter recordings which are really good. I also listened to Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida, whose recordings of the last five have been very inspirational, and Maurizio Pollini’s recordings in particular.”

When asked about the technical challenges of playing Beethoven, Williams stops to consider. “I’m not sure, because I don’t think you can separate the technical challenges from the musical challenges in Beethoven. If you take something like Opus 2/No.3, which was a piece he composed when he came to Vienna for the first time, it was like a demonstration – so this work is almost an exception because it draws attention to all the technical feats he could perform at that time, with double thirds and quasi-orchestral effects and so on. When you go in to the later works, I don’t think you can separate the technical challenges from the musical ones. Opus 101 and Opus 106, the ‘Hammerklavier’, are technically the most demanding, but there is also heightened emotional intensity in those pieces, and that does go together with the technical, because you are struggling against the technical and emotional in those pieces. With other composers like Liszt there is always an element that is more about the technical. With Schubert his piano technique was not as good, I suppose, so there is a kind of awkwardness in Schubert’s writing which is not quite related to the emotional content of the music in the way it would be in Beethoven. I think in Beethoven there is an ideal marriage between the technical and the musical.”

Williams is also underway with a cycle of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos, conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the leadership of his good friend Alexander Janiczek. “I think I played all the Concertos in reverse order in public. I started with the ‘Emperor’ when I was quite young, and worked backwards. When I played the complete cycle in Perth in 2010 for the first time there were some Sonatas I was also playing for the first time, so they all went hand in hand. I don’t feel you play differently when you play a Concerto to when you play a Sonata, or from when you accompany a singer to when you’re playing solo. You tend to have the idiom and style of each composer – it’s all music, I think!”

Away from Beethoven, Williams has recently released a double album of Wagner piano music – that is, a number of original piano pieces and some arrangements by Glenn Gould – and Williams himself. “It was the Wagner bicentenary and Barry Millington, the Wagner scholar, was curating an evening at Kings Place and he asked me to programme a half of music. It was supposed to be original piano music by Wagner but I didn’t know anything about these pieces. There was a Fantasy and the Sonata, which is a much better piece I think, and then I played some of the famous Liszt transcriptions. Signum Classics asked me to record these pieces afterwards, which is how this disc came about. I have been a big fan of Wagner since I was very young, even earlier than with Beethoven.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Did the experience of operatic music reduced for the piano teach him anything new about Wagner? “I didn’t really arrange a lot for piano, the only thing that is arranged by me on the disc is of three sections from Parsifal, but I haven’t involved myself in a lot of rearranging, it’s just playing from the vocal score and then adding to it as best I could. I didn’t learn an awful lot from doing that, because I knew a lot about Wagner in the first place, and because I only very minimally changed what is in the original score.”

How do Wagner’s melodies articulate on the piano? “It depends what it is – if you play something like the ‘Prize Song’ from Die Meistersinger, which is not on the disc, it is problematic, but other pieces work well on the piano because they are cantabile. It is mainly the orchestral bits that work best – the big ‘Transformation Music’ in the middle of the first Act of Parsifal, which works quite well because of the whole effect of bells, and the piano is always good at reproducing that – a tradition that goes back to Liszt and beyond.”

Williams is also partner to Janiczek as a violin-and piano-duo, and the pair will give two concerts at Wigmore Hall in the 2015/16 season. “We have a mixture of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók. We’re doing two concerts, so I think we will do the two Bartók Violin Sonatas, all the Brahms and some of Beethoven’s.” Does it help that Janiczek understands him as an artist from a number of different perspectives? “We’ve been working together for seven or eight years, so we understand our way of thinking quite well by now. I admire his questing musical mind, he always asks all sorts of questions of how a composer would have wanted a certain phrase to sound, and how it would have sounded on the instruments of the time. He’s quite knowledgeable about that kind of thing. He’s also very attentive, and we have a good dialogue together. I am playing all the Beethoven Concertos up in Scotland with him – we’ve already done No.1 and we have 3 and 4 coming up in the next season. I’m conducting those, so I’m standing up to conduct and then sitting down, which is quite an exuberant thing to do, and it stops you from getting nervous in those moments in between when you’re sitting there doing nothing. Your turn is a lot more fun if you control all the tuttis as well, and Alexander is very sensitive so he knows what I want before I ask for it.”

There are plans to record and preserve Williams’s Beethoven Sonata cycle. “I am recording these performances at Wigmore – Signum is recording them, but not for CD – they are putting them out online. A producer from New York called Judith Sherman, she comes over for each concert and she records every one and then we make minor adjustments. We record the rehearsal as well, and if we want to change something we will do a minor adjustment and then we’ll put them out, hopefully the first concert in time for the second, so that people can download them movement by movement or Sonata by Sonata. If ever I decide to change my interpretation along the way then I might pre-record one movement or one Sonata, and take the original off, and then people can download from the revised version. That is the whole point of doing it in this form rather than doing it on CDs, where it is fixed, and you don’t necessarily want it to be fixed at this stage in your career.”

Is that a performer’s dream, to have such editorial control over your performances? “It is in a way, but I’m not 100-percent sure how it’s going to work at the moment, because we don’t know how people are going to be directed to the site. The printed programme for the Wigmore each time will have a reminder or pointer, so I think I’m having a meeting with Signum in January to work out the way forward.”

Williams’s concert schedule includes a trip to Mexico, about which he is particularly curious. “I’ve never played there before. I think audiences are quite open there and they are very glad to hear anything new. They asked me originally for the Charles Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata, which has not been played in Mexico before, and I think now I have the Wagner CD the request has been changed, so maybe one other time.” Is it inspiring to visit somewhere completely new? “It is – as it was when I went to Istanbul for the first time recently. I had a wonderful audience there, and they were extremely hospitable.”

Finally, does Llŷr enjoy a break from the piano, over Christmas say? “No, not necessarily, because I’m not a great fan of sitting in front of the TV over Christmas, as I think there’s a lot of rubbish on – so I will learn something else that is not directly related to anything I’m playing in the New Year. I do take a break sometimes; I go on holiday and forget about music and the piano. It’s important to give the mind a break so that you’re not in the tunnel of piano practice all the time.”

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