In Philadelphia’s intimate Perelman Theater on Wednesday evening, Llŷr Williams, a cheerful young pianist from Wales, shone like an evening star in five piano sonatas by Beethoven. The program was part of the piano sonata and string quartet cycles being offered by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in this, the composer’s 250th anniversary year. Williams served as pinch-hitter for Ingrid Fliter, originally scheduled for this series but unable to make the date.

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Llŷr Williams
© Hannan Images

I cannot recall a more enjoyable evening spent with the music of Beethoven, in the presence of a slightly quirky artist in the best British eccentric tradition. Wearing a black, tucked-in shirt and slacks, Williams displayed military-worthy posture, but a warm expression of happiness never left his face. Williams played with exquisite lyricism and intelligent clarity from the first notes. As the program progressed, the touch of his large hands – the color of cameo shells – revealed the complexity, originality, and staggering vision of the composer.

The program opened with Beethoven’s very first piano sonata with an opus number, the Op.2 no.1 in F minor. Beethoven truly barges through the door of music history in this four-movement sonata with all its emotional shadows and moody flair, captured in Williams’ singing tone and thoughtful deliberation.

Following a charming rendition of the next selection, Op.49 no.2 in two movements, Williams presented an insightful interpretation of the Op.10 no.3, composed in 1798 when Beethoven was 27. Under Williams’ touch, the first movement is an onslaught of powerful dynamics, spectacular runs, as though sparks and stars were shooting from the keys. In this and throughout his playing, Williams occasionally turns his head slightly and makes eye contact with the audience, a knowing look on his face, as though to say, “How about that!” or “Can you believe it?” Strange and mysterious is the musical web the composer spins in this sonata, and there were times one felt as though suspended in air, outside of time.

The program ended with two favorites, the Tempest and the Hunt. In Williams’ interpretation, the former, in D minor, begins deliberately, reminiscent of music for harp, and toggles between sweet lyricism and a bold, commanding torrent of sound. The first movement contains one of Beethoven’s most mystical passages, certainly “the” most other-worldly in his early works. Breaths were held, even concert-hall coughs were silenced as Williams followed the composer’s direction to slow down the tempest from an Allegro to a Largo. A single melody in the bass clef, with pedal, a kind of recitative perhaps foreshadowing the Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony, whispers a message we may never articulate verbally, but know within our hearts. The program concluded with a light-hearted take on Op.31 no.3, with its rollicking hunting riff in the final movement.

Williams' recital offered a reminder that while there is something to say for listening to music in recordings, there is nothing like a live concert setting. We can observe the artists’ body language and expressive attire, interact with them through applause and praise, catch their eye and nod approval. The physical environment and artist’s presence are not to be underestimated. In addition to his tremendous artistry, Williams’ sidelong glances at the audience, his basking in the warm lights and applause like a turtle on a log, tell us that we, too, are important partners in the magic of musical performance.