Welsh pianist Llyr Williams has been attracting a good bit of attention in piano circles these days, having even toured the U.S. with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and being the subject of two films, one of which followed his 2009 debut in Carnegie Hall. His fans are numerous and apparently quickly growing in number, and one can find out virtually anything about him on the Internet except, perhaps, how to pronounce his given name. Positive reviews have come in from all over, including one from The Guardian: “And few could have expected his performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to be so overwhelming. There wasn’t a finger out of place all evening, and the dramatic plotting was spot-on.”
With all of that, I hope I don’t seem churlish in stating that I find his recording of Pictures decidedly a mixed bag. There are unquestionably parts of it that are beautifully executed, ranking with the best performances available. There are also portions that are idiosyncratic and poorly thought-out to the point that I wonder how he and I could have such different conceptions of how this piece ought to be played. First off, I must mention his pacing of the work: At 35:34, it is one of the slower versions on disc. That timing doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because Williams omits the fifth promenade, which, were he to have included it, would have put him over 37 minutes. This timing, while substantially faster than Ivo Pogorelic’s tortoise-like crawl through the work (42: 16), is significantly slower than the norm. I would guess, without having yet calculated an average performing time for this work, that it would come out around 32 or 33 minutes. Some fleet-fingered pianists (Peter Rosel comes to mind) have actually broken the 30-minute mark. Williams’s tempi in general don’t bother me that much, but his pace of “Il vecchio castello” is so leisurely, with every single note lovingly caressed, that the piece dies in its own beauty. Williams has forgotten that this piece is supposed to be a ballad sung by a troubadour to his lady.
I cannot let his omission of the fifth promenade pass without further comment. Ravel got by with it in his orchestration, but no pianist should amputate Mussorgsky’s composition this way. The composer put it there for a reason: It has a pivotal function within the work. Interestingly, the notes make no mention of its omission, or the pianist’s rationale for it. One suspects that those involved in this CD figured that listeners trained by Ravel’s version wouldn’t miss it. The program notes also err in another particular: There is no hint in Mussorgsky’s fair copy autograph score that he originally wrote the opening “Promenade” in 11/14 meter, as claimed, nor are there any surviving sketches of the work that antedate that copy made in June of 1874.
Williams also begins “Bydlo” piano, perpetuating the error (or change) by Rimsky-Korsakov, who edited it for publication by Bessel in 1886. It was some time before piano editions began to correctly reflect Mussorgsky’sfortissimo dynamic here, resulting in Ravel incorporating the error in his orchestration. I can accept no excuse for pianists to open this piece this way, given the fact that by now everyone knows what Mussorgsky intended, namely, to startle the listener after the gossamer ending of “Tuileries,” similar to what he did going from “Cum mortuis” to “Baba-Yaga.”
A serious miscalculation comes in “Baba-Yaga” in measure 95: Here, Williams plays the notes in the right hand as a tremolo, destroying the remarkable contrast between the triplets found there and the actual tremolo that begins in measure 108. This is simply inexcusable. In “Great Gate,” Williams’s opening does not sound majestic to my ears. More serious, though, is the six-second pause that he inserts between measures 29 and 30, long enough that I was about to get out of my seat to check to see what happened to my CD player. He uses way too much pedal in the cascading octaves section beginning in measure 47, and his descending scale in measures 111-13 hardly slows down a bit at the bottom, such that the lowest notes are badly blurred. Even the very last note of the piece he somehow makes sound like an afterthought.
Thus far, I’ve said a lot of negative things about Williams’s performance of Pictures (and my list could be expanded), but there are places in his reading that match anything on record, and to be fair to him, I want to point out some of these as well. Promenade II is played about as beautifully as it could possibly be played, as is “Tuilleries,” where I find his subtle dynamic contrast between the first half of the opening measure and the slightly softer second half a beautiful effect. The entire movement is similarly and exquisitely played. Despite the piano opening of “Bydlo,” its B section, beginning in measure 21, is simply perfect. The opening section of “Goldenberg” is nicely phrased, and his liberty in the rhythm of measures 13 and 14, wherein the 32nd notes become 64th notes, is actually very effective, and sets his reading apart from that of other pianists in a good way. In “Catacombs,” Williams’s slow tempo enhances the eternity of the tomb that Mussorgsky is trying to depict here. I can recall no one who plays this better than he. In measure 3 of “Cum mortuis,” he suddenly brings out the tremolo in the right hand more- again, a very nice touch. In short, there are many felicitous things in this performance to enjoy.
I find even more to like in Williams’s performances of Debussy and Liszt that fill out this disc. One could scarcely ask for a more flawlessly executed “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes, or a more fluid cascade of notes than one finds in his version of Liszt’s Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este. His bringing out the limpid melody over the accompaniment in Ave Maria is simply exquisite. I can quibble only about a minor detail here and there in these pieces I would like to have heard greater climaxes in certain places in the Liszt pieces (for example at around the six-minute mark in Spozalizio), and more accentuation of some of the climactic bass notes, also in Spozalizio.
The recorded piano sound on this CD definitely is intended to give the impression of hearing this recital in the concert hall. I can imagine that I am sitting somewhere in the lOth or 12th row. As far as the disc goes as a whole, well, there are too many problems in the Mussorgsky to recommend it for that, but if you’re more interested in Williams’s take on Debussy or Liszt, I don’t believe you’ll likely be disappointed there, although there is plenty of competition for all of these works.
An imaginative recital programme of works inspired by pictures and images
Mussorgsky’s suite depicts particular paintings (11, to be precise, by his late friend Viktor Hartmann); Sposalizio was inspired by Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin; the two other Liszt pieces and the three of Debussy’s Estampes (“Engravings”) are sensual keyboard evocations of images from the physical world.
Ll?r Williams’s stroll round Mussorgsky’s Pictures gets better as it goes along. “Gnomus” is cautious and under-characterised, with little differentiation in dynamics; “ll vecchio castello” is achingly slow, with no sign of a troubadour singing by the castle walls. By the time we get to the “Ballet of the Little Chicks”, Williams has got into his stride, proceeding to a truly menacing “Baba-Yaga” and awesomely sonorous “Great Gate at Kiev”, though his stately tempo robs the finale of its cumulative power. Debussy’s triptych follows in sensitive, though not always acutely observed, accounts (for this, especially the last pages of “Pagodes” and the central section of “La soiree dans Grenade”, one turns to the magical Jean-Efflam Bavouzet -Chandos, 1/08). The three Liszt works round off this imaginative programme, concluding with the rarely heard third of his four settings of Ave Maria.
The lively acoustic of Wyastone in which this recital was recorded sometimes makes one yearn for the mellow analogue of a mono LP. Old technology might not capture the piano with such fidelity but it largely avoided any clinical sonic glare, the equivalent of reading by the harsh light of a fluorescent long-life bulb instead of the warm glow of the traditional filament.
There have been times when Ll?r Williams has seemed rather an earnest interpreter of his chosen music, the intellect engaged but not the emotions. Such dispassion has put a barrier between him and the listener. With this recording, often requiring a painterly approach to interpretation, Williams engages in all departments. This is a vivid Pictures at an Exhibition, astute as to the work’s progression and also alive to suggestive nuances for each of Victor Hartmann’s images. There’s bags of confidence here from Williams, poise too, not least in the several ‘Promenade’ sections in which the viewer to the showing thoughtfully goes from one canvas to another: each of these is vibrantly drawn, with dexterity and grandeur, and with solemnity and menace, each depiction made individual as well as part of a chain. Williams avoids exaggeration, his phrasing is smooth, his tempos always giusto, his sense of line impeccable. This may not be the most colourful of Pictures, yet a certain gravity seems to work well in Mussorgsky’s chosen medium of the pianoforte (amazing how many arrangements of this so- popular work now exist, and how often we hear Ravel’s orchestration of it).
The Debussy could be more colourful though, and a little more subtle at times; there isn’t enough mystery in ‘Pagodes’ and the rather ‘cold’ and swelling acoustic in which this recording was made in isn’t always well-enough judged in terms of fortissimos; it may well be though that Debussy, who was not keen on the term ‘Impressionism’, would have approved of the rather hard-edge account that is created and preserved here. The three pieces by Liszt that complete this release show Williams at his finest, a richly intense ‘Sposalizio’, a masterly ‘Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este’, immaculately performed and so evocative (even allowing the sound exacerbates treble frequencies), and the closing Ave Maria that is quietly sombre yet with inner life enough be as pictorial as any of the music that precedes it.
Reservations about the sound, yes, but musically Ll?r Williams here displays a rewarding balance between heart and head, as well as presenting each work as a whole without denuding the various episodes that are essential facets to such completeness.
|This programme’s connecting thread is pictures – either literally (Mussorgsky’s response to Vladimir Hartmann’s drawings), or in the imagination (Debussy’s evocation of the Far East and southern Spain, neither of which he ever visited), or both (Liszt conveying his religious faith while depicting the Italian scene around him). In Pictures at an Exhibition there’s a question-mark about Llyr Williams’s willingness to depart from Mussorgsky’s autograph with rather more than the occasional bass octave doubling or re-spaced chord. The opening fortissimo of ‘Bydlo’ is replaced with a long crescendo from mezzo piano (why?); and the fifth ‘Promenade’ section (before ‘Limoges’), as all too often, is omitted. Bur the upside is truly impressive. Williams’s technical command confounds the difficulties of ‘Baba Yaga’ (ultra-clear octaves at full throttle) or ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’, taken at a sparkling pace with no loss of detail.
The quality of his full and rounded piano sound is remarkable, too, with a wonderful range of colours to draw on – who needs an orchestral version after this? And in ‘Catacombae’, there’s serious power with no trace of harshness.
Debussy’s Estampes (Etchings), likewise, explore a Mussorgsky related world of sharp outline and atmospheric colour. Williams allows the music’s brand of sophisticated spontaneity to speak memorably for itself: in the opening bars of ‘La soiree dans Grenade’, the dark immensity of the surrounding Spanish night is instantly suggested. And if his interpretation of ‘Sposalizio’ here just misses an authentic Lisztian sense of improvised naturalness, Williams portrays the Villa d’Este’s fountains and the bells of Rome with much expressive power.
Llyr Williams will be known to listeners of BBC Radio 3 as a former Young Generations Artist. His first CD recital for Signum (there’s a disc of Chopin Nocturnes on Quartz) contains a programme inspired by artwork and the pictorial, although Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition isn’t given the most characterfuJ rendition. ‘Gnomus’ is a bit on the careful side and ‘The Old Castle’ is taken exceptionally slowly – any fair maiden serenaded by this troubadour could well lose patience and go back inside! Unusually, and possibly giving a nod to Ravel ‘s orchestration, ‘ Bydlo ‘ begins softly, rather than the fortissimo marking in Mussorgsky’s original. Williams isn’t the first pianist to omit the ‘Promenade’ before ‘Limoges’. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ isn’t as cataclysmic as some performances, partly due to the slower tempo. On the plus side, ‘Unhatched chicks’ has crystalline precision and ‘Baba-Yaga’ has fearsome power.
The rest of the programme is considerably better, with fine performances of Debussy’s Estampes, given with great clarity, followed by two of Liszt’s Annees de pelerinage: ‘Sposalizio’ depicting Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, and ‘Les jeux d’eau it la Villa d’Este’ showing Williams at his virtuosic best, streams of notes rippling from his keyboard. Another Liszt work inspired by Rome, Ave Maria, Die Glocken von Rom, concludes the disc with a glorious pealing of bells.