Beethoven Unbound (Well, Some Of The Time!)

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Between 2014 and 2016 Llyr Williams gave nine all-Beethoven recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall devoted to all 32 sonatas, the principal variation sets, the Op. 33 and Op. 126 Bagatelles, and several short pieces. These performances provide the basis for the present release, along with subsequent edits, patches, and the occasional re-recording of a movement. Rather than follow a chronological or numerical sequence, Williams’ programs aimed for contrast and variety, although he does bookend the cycle with the first three sonatas at the start and the last three at the end.

As a Beethoven stylist, Williams exemplifies the best qualities of the so-called “modern” school. His sonority is consistently clear and transparent, and his attention to balances and voice leading befits Beethoven’s linear aesthetic. Good examples of the latter can be found in the Op. 2 No. 3 Scherzo’s graceful imitative writing, the accuracy and poise throughout Op. 101’s gnarly March, and the effortless navigation of the “Les Adieux” finale’s arpeggiated fireworks.

Williams is scrupulous in regard to the precise execution of slurs, accents, and stacattos, yet never to the mannered or exaggerated degree that András Schiff sometimes displays. For lack of a better word, “sanity” best defines Williams’ tempos. Allegros are spirited and forward moving, albeit without the febrile intensity of Schnabel or Gulda. His slow movements may not plumb Arrau’s depths in works like Op. 10 No. 3 or Op. 111, yet they are more centered and less flippant than what one occasionally hears from Kempff or Backhaus. Sometimes Williams downplays the stressful and combative effect inherent in Beethoven’s frequent use of subito dynamics, as if he’s afraid to truly let go—for example, in the Op. 77 Fantasia’s rhapsodic passages, Op. 27 No. 1’s zany Scherzo, Op. 31 No. 3’s rollicking finale, and the unfettered “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” codas. In other words, Beethoven may be unbound, yet he’s still on a leash!

But Williams compensates with discreet rhythmic flexibility that generates momentum when it counts, such as in the B minor Op. 127 Bagatelle’s outer sections, the respective fugues in the Eroica and Diabelli Variations, and the Hammerklavier’s fugal development section (here, by the way, Williams opts for the “genius misprint” A-sharp reading right before the recapitulation favored by Schnabel, Arrau, and Pollini, as opposed to the more logical A-natural “correction” espoused by Kempff, Brendel, Petri, and Perahia.). In short, Williams’ interpretations may not displace your favorites, yet his intelligent virtuosity and cultivation are likely to stand their ground in a competitive catalog, together with Judith Sherman’s superb production values.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Beethoven Unbound
Reference Recording: 32 Sonatas: Arrau (Philips); Goode (Nonesuch), Eroica Variations: Curzon (Decca), Diabelli Variations: Kovacevich (Onyx)

  • Llyr Williams (piano)

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