Beethoven Unbound by Llŷr Williams

Beethoven Unbound is a 12 CD box set that contains not only the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, but also various other works for solo piano. These include the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80, the Eroica Variations, Op. 35, the Bagatelles, Op. 126 and the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, a total of almost 14 hours of music. All of these are performed by the Welsh pianist and critically acclaimed Beethoven interpreter, Llŷr Williams¹. The set has been released to mark the completion of Llŷr Williams’ well received Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. The works were recorded live at Wigmore Hall over three years and nine recitals giving us more than a day’s listening for less than £40 if you shop around! The works on the individual discs in this set are arranged not chronologically but like mini recital programmes, reflecting the way Williams presented the music in concert. The CDs are presented in a beautiful hinged box which contains extensive and informative notes by Mischa Donat in addition to some notes by the pianist himself.

Llŷr Williams may be better known to concert goers than to purchasers of compact discs. He is a regular performer in the Wigmore Hall’s main piano series and has given many remarkable performances at the Edinburgh International Festival. He has also appeared at the BBC Proms in London and at the Cheltenham Music Festival. He has performed cycles of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas previously, notably in Perth. In addition to his commitment to the piano works of Beethoven, Llŷr Williams also has a great love of lieder and he is one of the official accompanists at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Those readers who have encountered Williams in the concert hall will have noted that this highly intense Welsh pianist is the complete antithesis of many of today’s showy young pianists. What you get from Williams is deeply considered, serious music-making and that is highly evident in these fascinating, live performances. On these recordings Llŷr Williams manages to to shed new light on some of the most familiar music and, in some of the miniatures, to transform the simplest of melodies into something quite remarkable. As one proceeds through this series of discs one realises that Williams has a formidable technique, great musical intelligence and a sense of inquisitiveness which combined with his humour and humanity lead to some noteworthy performances. Examples of Williams’ exceptionally fine playing in the piano sonatas can be found in, for example:

  • Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 is an impressive, early work that Williams appears to relish and is in his element – his playing is delightfully springy, well modulated, dramatic and extrovert.
  • Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ is clearly heartfelt and full of emotion but never allowed to become sentimental.
  • Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ which is full of emotional intensity but performed with great technique despite the challenging nature of the piece.

I had a more mixed reaction to some works. For example, in the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’ Williams’ playing initially appears rather staid but he ends the work with a truly thrilling and tempestuous finale, accelerating like a sports car into the coda and maintaining astonishing speed right up to the final emphatic chords.

For this listener, the standout of this set has to be Llŷr Williams’ account of the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Diabelli’s main theme is most charmingly performed and the variations see Williams at times being lyrical, questioning, flamboyant, driven, waggish and intimate (though not in that order). This is a performance that I would put on a par with that of Alfred Brendel and I shall come back to it on many occasions – of that I have no doubt.

This is a fine collection of performances of Beethoven’s solo piano works and it is well worth exploring. Inevitably in a complete set there will be works that are preferred in alternate versions but the playing here is always of the highest quality and the interpretations carefully considered by a performer who has clearly thought deeply about Beethoven’s intentions. The best of these performances are out of the top drawer and all are worthy of careful listening. At its bargain price this set is highly recommended to all lovers of Beethoven’s piano music.

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¹ Since giving his first Beethoven cycle in Perth in 2010, and winning a South Bank Sky Arts Award in 2012 for an epic two-week marathon in Edinburgh, Williams has gained a reputation as one of the finest performers of Beethoven’s piano works.