L. Williams performs Chopin
(© Benjamin Ealovega)
Major musical venues around the planet have been ominously silent during the past pandemic year, but conservatories and many other citadels of music education have been actively engaged in streaming concerts, practice, teaching, and learning to keep the art alive and vibrant regardless of the circumstances. One such venue is the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff, Wales, UK, the first Steinway Conservatoire in Europe. The College acquired 24 new Steinway pianos, including the Model D Concert Grand used in this program.
What better way to display the ingenious construction of this new instrument than by hosting a six-concert series of works by Frédéric Chopin, esteemed as the “poet of the piano.” Artist-in-Association Llŷr Williams is the featured pianist in all six recitals held in the shadow of Cardiff Castle in the Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall. To judge by a recital in the series I “attended” online in mid-May, both pianist and instrument were at their finest despite the punishing circumstances of the pandemic.
The program, “24 Preludes”, presented before an enthusiastic, socially distanced audience, was a rare treat to hear, not only in the sampler of delights announced by the title, but in a selection of waltzes, nocturnes, an impromptu, and the dazzling scherzo presented in the first half of the program. It was almost shocking to hear a live audience enthusiastically applauding after many months of musicians applauding each other in empty halls, or, in the case of a solo recital, no applause at all.
The evening opened with three Waltzes, op. 34, composed between 1834 and 1838. Williams launched boldly into the first, in A-flat major, blending a lightness of touch appropriate for a dance with a maturity and warmth that honored the budding genius of the composer. The strength, yet brevity, of Williams’ attacks on high notes is always a delight to hear, especially so in these.
Williams played the Nocturne D-flat major, op. 27, no. 2, with a distinctly modern sensibility. The byline, “by Chopin,” is not a license to be sloppy and untidy. Instead, this pianist combines respect for the integrity of Chopin’s solid intelligence with the expressive feeling that great Romantic-era music deserves. In this work and the Nocturne in B major, Op. 32 No. 1, Williams is listening as he plays, his concentrated facial expression and dignified bearing suggesting that at this moment, for the artist, nothing is more important than performing Chopin with absolute attention.
Following the playful Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29, Williams offered a breathtaking reading of the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, luxuriating in its monumental chords, tender echoes, and lyrical articulations. The work takes new twists and turns as it unfurls, all so different from a jovial scherzo in the hand of Beethoven.
Following an intermission—in itself a rare hiatus in streaming concerts during the past year—Williams presented Chopin’s 24 exquisite delicacies with the range and variety they deserve. Polished during Chopin’s stormy and disease-clouded stay in Majorca with George Sand and her children, the Preludes reflect what it means to be human, from the freshness of birth, through the passions of love, to the shadow “above the grave” as Cortot characterized the poignant Prelude in E minor. Under Williams’ touch, one cannot imagine a more graceful segue from lento to più lento in the F-sharp major selection. In other places, Chopin has a way of burying a melody in the middle of a series of complex chords, but Williams delineates the tunes without sacrificing the structure that both hides and sustains them.
While desiring that in-person concerts with live audiences and appropriately compensated artists will return by the fall season, I hope venues also will continue to offer at least some performances in streaming form. It is true that there are many aspects of concert-going that we cannot replicate by streaming. The quality of the sound, being surrounded by interesting people, vibrations that travel through our armrests and up from the floorboards, even the familiar discomfort of sitting on a bunched-up jacket or dashing for the exit to catch the early train. They all add up to an experience that has no equal.
And yet, there is a place for streaming, YouTube, and their ilk, which I would categorize with recordings, DVDs, radio, and TV. These media allow us to see and hear so much more, including music from parts of the world we may never visit and the finest artists as well. How many young people or those not previously exposed to the repertoire have discovered the joys of classical music thanks to streaming?
So, while thanking RWCMD for its creative use of technology in the past year, I encourage them and other hosts of great music to continue to do so as an adjunct to future live performances. I for one look forward to continuing to visit the world’s concert halls on this magic carpet of technology for years to come.