Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major Op. 10 No. 2

7 Bagatelles Op. 33

Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’

Llŷr Williams, piano

Wigmore Hall, 4th April, 1pm

Fans of Beethoven’s piano music are in for a rich treat with Llŷr Williams’ new 12-disc box set Beethoven Unbound, released on the Signum label to mark the completion of Williams’ Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD). All the works were recorded live at Wigmore Hall over three years and nine recitals. What is especially rewarding about this set is that it contains not only the 32 Piano Sonatas but also the Diabelli, Eroica and c minor Variations (WoO 80), two sets of Bagatelles Opp 33 and 126, and shorter works such as the Andante Favori and Für Elise.

Llyr Williams must credit Benjamin Ealovega handout ...

I had the pleasure of hearing Llŷr Williams live for the first time (rather cross with myself for missing his earlier Beethoven concerts at Wigmore Hall!) at a special lunchtime concert to launch the recording. The three works in the programme offered a striking snapshot of Beethoven’s creative life over the course of nearly 20 years, demonstrating the revolutionary forward pull of his artistic vision – a slow movement in an early sonata (Op 10/2) which foreshadowed the spaciousness and lyricism of Schubert – and his debt to the classical tradition (traces of Haydn in finales and the Bagatelles). Williams’ has a rather unique stage presence which some may find off-putting: he makes little witty gestural “asides” to the audience, often at the end of a section or movement, as if to say “well, there you have it!”. I found this rather agreeable: at times it felt as if Williams was communicating directly with me alone and it created a rather charming and sometimes cheeky intimacy: one felt as if one was very much party to the humour. And there was wit and humour aplenty in the F major Sonata Op 10, No. 2 – a first movement of bright contrasts was followed by a slow movement of almost Schubertian intensity, rounded off by a galloping finale. In the rarely-heard Op 33 Bagatelles, Williams revealed Beethoven’s symphonic and ensemble writing in these piano miniatures, with clear voicings (wonderfully bright brass fanfares in the first Bagatelle and deep, resonant ‘cellos in a later one) and orchestral textures, while always alert to the pianistic nature of Beethoven’s writing: Williams’ clarity and attention to detail was impressive, especially his articulation and use of the pedal. The Sonata in E flat, Op 81a, ‘Les Adieux’, had just the right amount of emotion and heartfelt expression without becoming sentimental, and the “reunion” of the finale was memorably joyful.

As Williams’ said at the reception after his concert, while others choose to focus solely on the 32 Piano Sonatas (in itself a monumental undertaking), this recording steps outside of that traditional presentation, and the works on the individual discs in his Beethoven Unbound set are arranged not chronologically but like mini recital programmes, reflecting the way Williams presented the music in concert.

Recommended – and at £45 (that’s just £3.75 per disc) it’s very good value.

Beethoven Unbound (Signum Classics)

Meet the Artist – Llyr Williams


(photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

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British pianist Stephen Hough in concert

The psychological and emotional reasons why musicians perform and why we feel a need to connect and communicate with audiences is a broad and complex subject. For many musicians, performing is their raison d’être – the need, the will to play, to perform for others, in public, sometimes so overwhelming that it engages them entirely, body and soul.

Perhaps the primary motivation is the desire to share one’s music with others: in discussing the question “Why Perform?” with musician friends and colleagues, the majority of respondents cited “sharing the music” as a significant motivator. Sharing music in concert celebrates common cultural values (identity, history) and performing can be regarded as a “cultural gift”, a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to listen to music. It brings pleasure to performer and to audience – both in terms of pure “entertainment” and also the pleasures of intellectual stimulation and challenge, or being emotionally moved. Alongside this, performing gives voice to the human condition and the meaning of life, and examines and confronts shared values in ways which transcend spoken language. Through sharing in a musical performance, we can celebrate togetherness and common purpose.

By performing the great works we share in something which is so much greater than ourselves, celebrating and appreciating brilliant human beings, like Mozart or Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler. Performing is a form of conservation or “curation”, by keeping these great works alive; it also looks after and inspires the next generation – musicians and concert goers.

On a more personal level performing satisfies an inner, more selfish need – the need to be valued and appreciated, the need to impress, to be loved even. It gives us something to live for and to work towards. Performing is a very special form of self-expression and fulfillment, creating experiences that only exist “in the moment” of the performance and then resonate in our individual and collective memories. A performance offers audience, and performer, a single, one-off interpretation of or “variation” on the piece, remembered and/or preserved only as that interpretation.

From a practical point of view, performing endorses and validates what we do in the practice room, and confirms that we have done our practising and preparation correctly. It holds the music up for scrutiny and offers insights about the music and the music-making process which simply cannot be obtained in the practice room, and keeps us in touch with that process from beginning to end. A successful performance demonstrates that we have practised deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand fully what is meant by “music making”. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”? 

Performances are unique occasions where we live in, and for, the moment. They should never be like rehearsals and for a succession of fleeting moments, the music lives beyond the written score. For those of us who perform, at whatever level, it is probably the most challenging, and satisfying, thing we will ever do.

making an audience feel something profound, moving or incredible never gets any less wonderful and it’s the best job in the worldHeather Bird, double bassist

 

evgenykissin_wide-9aa53798ae987906571102878d8a12936652197c-s900-c85You know you’re at a special concert when the social areas around the concert hall, the bars and cafés, are abuzz with a very tangible sense of excitement? “When did you last hear him?”  “I hear he is magnificent….. ” Add to that an audience populated by “important people” of the music world, including pianist Menahem Pressler (now in his 90’s and still playing) – it promised to be an exceptional evening.

It’s over 20 years since I last saw Evgeny Kissin live. That concert, the first solo piano recital in the history of the Proms, was legendary for all sorts of reasons – coruscating performances of works by Haydn, Liszt and Chopin and no less than seven encores to a record-breaking audience (over 6000). In the course of his career, he has been criticized by some for his rather cool manner, smooth perfectionism, and style over substance, but there’s never been any doubt about his consistent dedication to his art and artistry. Listen to his recording of Chopin’s Berceuse and you hear refinement in every opalescent note and multi-hued filigree passage: Kissin has musical intellect and, more importantly, he has soul.

No longer the shock-haired wunderkind, he is now a mature artist in his mid-40s; he has written a slim volume of thoughtful memoirs and has married his childhood sweetheart. He’s still got the phenomenal technique, but his stage presence is noticeably more relaxed (much smiling during his curtain calls). Yet his style and demeanour hark back to an earlier era, including the way he dresses (evening suit, black tie, even a cummerbund – a rarity at concerts these days): I think audiences really love this – despite attempts by other artists to break down the “us and them” barriers of the concert stage – because it reminds us of the huge sense of occasion a concert by a pianist of this calibre creates and preserves the mystique of the virtuoso performer.

In the programme notes, Kissin was described as a “titan among pianists”, suggesting both physical and metaphoric presence. In an article last year, The Economist billed him as “one of the world’s greatest living musicians”. Both statements are of course subjective – while also being true. He is “great”, in the sense of possessing an ineffable multi-faceted talent which makes the reviewer’s job so hard – for how can one truly describe what he does?

In keeping with his “old school” stage demeanor, he does not indulge in showy piano pyrotechnics nor flashy gesture for the sake of gesture. His mannerisms may be restrained but his playing is full of commitment and a passion which transcends romanticism: it burns with a hypnotic intensity.

Beethoven’s mightly Hammerklavier is one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, never undertaken lightly. In interviews Kissin has stated that he felt a certain maturity – which he now has – was necessary to tackle this monumental work (other, younger pianists are not so modest…..). It certainly gave full rein to Kissin’s magisterial powers, not just his technique but his musical intelligence too. He made the infamously difficult opening of the Hammerklavier – a rapid leap of an octave and a half taken in the left hand alone – look easy (and indeed the entire programme!) and launched into the first movement with a heroic commitment wrought in myriad sound. This work is so pianistic, its nickname a constant reminder that it must be played on a piano (and Beethoven was alert to rapid developments in piano design at the start of the nineteenth century: he knew a new instrument could produce the effects he demands in his score), yet also rich in orchestral textures and voicings, all revealed so clearly, so musically by Kissin. His pianistic attack may be direct, but his fortissimos never compromise on quality of sound, and his edges are smoothly honed. But above all of this, it was his pacing and natural rubato which captivated: a clear through-narrative combined with interpretative spontaneity gave this large-scale sonata a fantasy-like character, yet with a rigorous sense of the work’s overall architecture – even in the Adagio Sostentuto, where time was suspended for a movement played with an intense almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, yet managed with all the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality and strikingly dramatic contrasts.

The second half was all Rachmaninov Preludes, a selection from Opp 23 and Op 32, works with which Kissin is fully at ease. As in the Beethoven structures were fully understood, while sound was sculpted, grand gestures deftly chiseled, delicate motifs etched in filigree touch and a gentle haze of sound. We felt the composer’s emotional depth, his yearning and nostalgia, without a hint of false sentiment or surface artifice.

Four encores afforded more pianistic marvels – a crepuscular, haunting étude by Scriabin (Op 2, No. 1), Kissin’s own vertiginously virtuosic Toccata (proof that he could have been an excellent boogie woogie pianist as well!), another favourite Rachmaninov Prelude (in C minor), played with as much energy as if he was beginning the concert, and Tchaikovsky’s Méditation. He probably would have played more, such was his eagerness to return to the piano at each curtain call, but regretfully many of us had last trains to catch.


(photo: FBroede/IMG Artists)

Social media, specifically Facebook, has been getting a lot of bad press recently, but the medium should not be regarded as wholly bad or evil.

I’ve had an “online presence” for nearly 10 years now. I found Twitter rather confusing when I first started using it and tended to only share links to my blog articles rather than actively engage with others. But I quickly got the hang of it and now largely prefer it to Facebook.

Many people think social media platforms such as Twitter are basically an advertising tool, which completely misses the point – the clue is in the word “social”. I like to view Twitter as an online version of the parish pump, or a busy cafe, where one meets others to converse, exchange news, share ideas and resources, or have a laugh.

In the midst of all the negativity surrounding social media at present, I’d like to put in a personal plea for the benefits of the medium. My online experiences have largely been very positive and have led to some very fruitful/interesting connections, freelance work and friendships, in cyberspace and In Real Life. Many of the connections I’ve forged via Twitter are, unsurprisingly, fellow bloggers; others are piano teachers or music educators; many more are the musicians and composers who have taken part in my Meet the Artist interview series. I greatly value the connections I’ve made, both personal and professional, and enjoy daily interactions with people whose tweets and discussions stimulate, enlighten, amuse, move, delight and more….. I’ve even made friends in Real Life with some of my ‘Twitterati’.

Call me naive, but I find my Twitter experience is greatly enhanced by the “tweet unto others as you would have them tweet unto you” rule. Be nice, be friendly, thank people for retweeting or sharing your stuff, don’t be an “ego-tweeter” (i.e. only sharing your own stuff or tweets in which you get a mention). In short, observe good “Twitterquette” and you get a lot back in terms of positive interactions with others using the platform.

So a big “thank you” to my friends and connections, online and in Real Life


Further reading

Classical Musicians and Social Media

The Curse – and Benefits – of Social Media

 

Songs by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn – Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall, 21 March 2018

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth 

Middle Temple Hall is an exciting, unconventional space for a song recital. Somehow austere and ornate all at once, it generates a self-contained, imposing atmosphere before a note is even played.

Its layout also gives many of the audience members a slightly different relationship to the performers. I think of most venues – especially other prominent chamber venues in London like Wigmore Hall or Milton Court – as having a ‘portrait’ shape: rows of seats roughly matching the width of the stage, stretching back a certain distance. Middle Temple Hall, when set up for concerts, is ‘landscape’. The artists take their positions at the centre of one of the long walls, and the listeners spread out to the sides. As a result, more of the audience than you might expect are close to the action – and closer to the sound.

This intimacy really does change everything. My companion and I managed to sit only a couple of rows back on the left side – as piano obsessives, we were delighted at the perfect keyboard sightline and the privileged view it gave us of Julius Drake’s performance. And for these emotional, highly-charged song choices, it was at times overwhelming to be only a few feet away from the singers, to feel their voices at a near-physical level.

And what voices. During the opening selection of Schubert songs, Julia Kleiter’s rich, versatile soprano ranged from a searching tenderness in ‘An den Mond’, to an arresting desperation at the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Christoph Prégardien must be one of the finest lieder singers of our age, able to convey warmth and clarity even when hitting the ground running in the very first song of the evening, ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’.


Julius Drake curates recitals regularly for the ‘Temple Song’ series, and this programme was expertly put together to bring out the best in all three musicians. I was surprised at first that the evening began with a Schubert ‘hits’ set of sorts, but it soon made perfect sense. Allowing the singers to take turns at appropriate points and pace themselves, the selection in fact highlighted JD’s virtuosity. I’ve described him in the past as one of the most purely exciting accompanists to catch live – and so it proved again, as we heard ‘Wilkommen…’, ‘Gretchen…’, ‘Versunken’ and ‘Der Musensohn’ carried off with such facility and flair, while never upsetting the balance between piano and voices.

The evening then built in intensity. The Schubert half of the programme was all Goethe settings, the final seven lieder a dramatic sequence combining the ‘Mignon’ and ‘Harper’ songs drawn from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe. After the stand-alone choices, these mournful, moving laments had a devastating, cumulative effect until finally we heard, for the first time in the evening, the two voices together in one of only two song duets Schubert composed. A masterful change of mood, allowing us some welcome time to reflect during the interval.

Part 2 brought another change of approach. First, CP took centre stage to perform four settings of Heine by Schumann which were essentially rejected ‘out-takes’ from ‘Dichterliebe’. Then both signers sang Schumann duets. This pattern was repeated for Mendelssohn – however, JK took the solo section (again, based on Heine texts) before we heard more duets. While these songs had their fair share of heartbreak, this part of the concert was less concerned with lingering, brooding angst – instead giving us the joy of contrast between Schumann’s near-hyperactivity and Mendelssohn’s more stately reserve. CP and JK – who happen to be uncle and niece – looked and sounded especially comfortable when performing the duets, treating us to suitably special interpretations of lieder that one doesn’t get to hear as often as one would like. Their encore, a glorious version of Schubert’s other duet, the sublime ‘Licht und Liebe’, brought the evening full circle in the loveliest way imaginable.

Temple Song
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Southbank Centre’s Brutalist arts venues, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, will reopen on Monday 9 April, following over two years of refurbishment and redesign.

While many of us missed the QEH and Purcell Room during their closure, St John’s Square, not far away on the north side of the river, near Westminster, has benefited from increased exposure as it has been the home of most of the SBC International Piano Series concerts and some chamber recitals too, and it is good to see this fine building now firmly on the map of London concert venues. Meanwhile, the newly refurbished QEH and Purcell Room look fabulous, judging by these pictures, and details such as French polished wood, hand-upholstered leather and aluminium seats and energy efficient climate control promise stylish comfort for the contemporary concert goer. The original brutalist concrete structures have been fully restored and the foyer area (previously rather grim despite attempts at funky lighting) has been revitalised with plenty of natural light  and better views of the Thames

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The Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room open with a programme of events paying tribute to the historic legacy of the venues, and the legendary artists who have performed there over the past fifty years. A dynamic blend of contemporary and classical work sees vibrant performances, events, installations and a free programme of activities for all ages. The reopening programme runs from Monday 9 April until the end of May 2018. Further details here