Cycles can be intriguing. Those that chronicle a composer's musical development over a period of time are particularly interesting. Beethoven's cycle of piano sonatas in one of the most illuminating and perhaps amongst the most well-known. Llŷr Williams, the Welsh pianist who is midway through his three-year Beethoven cycle at Wigmore Hall, is continuing to draw interest in his exploration of these works.

Llŷr Williams © John Ferro Sims
Llŷr Williams
© John Ferro Sims
Williams' latest offering was to bring together three sonatas spanning a pivotal ten-year period in musical history, culminating in the mighty Hammerklavier Sonata. Also thrown into the mix was his last work written for solo piano, the Six Bagatelles Op.126, written as a unified cycle of individual pieces. Not only do these important works reflect a shift in Beethoven's musical maturity, moving from his middle to late periods, but they also illustrate the evolution in form, style and emotional expression as the classical era moved into the romantic.

As a performer, Williams has a captivating presence. His relaxed entrance portrayed a polite and charming demeanour as he took his opening bow and then dived straight into the lively opening of the Op.79 sonata, his fingers navigating the delicate phrases with consummate ease. His style lends itself very well to Beethoven. He plays with steely determination but with a deep sense of thoughtfulness, which clearly reflects his intelligent and analytical approach towards this music. He has an intensity that is occasionally broken by a welcome sense of playfulness and, dare I say it, the odd cheeky glance towards the audience as some of the lighter phrases fade away into the distance.

His phrasing in all of these pieces was immaculate, and he contrasted very effectively his powerful and percussive playing (which is so important in Beethoven) with a lightness of touch. But his real strength is in his sense of poise in the long lines, which was evident particularly in the Andante of Op.79, the first movement of the Op.90 sonata and pretty much all of the Hammerklavier. Williams' performance of the thought-provoking and emotionally restless first movement of the Op.90 sonata was one of the best I've heard. The second movement, however, was a little laboured in places, but it still had a good sense of shape and plenty of charm.

Williams showed no reluctance to pick up the pace in key movements, such as the third movement of Op.79, which worked well for me, and the final movement of the Hammerklavier. He was also not afraid to let rip on occasions, although it was probably more controlled aggression than reckless abandon. I sense there is more beneath the surface here. He was particularly effective in bringing out bass lines and emphasising sharp single bass notes like typically Beethovian punctuation marks, particularly in the Bagatelles and the Hammerklavier.

The Six Bagatelles, or musical 'trifles', were a good choice to complement the sonatas. They are extremely inventive and varied in style, and even Beethoven himself said that these were probably the best pieces of this kind that he had written. Williams gave a sparkling performance of these complex miniatures, and very effectively brought out the contrasts between the individual pieces which were alternately intricate and lyrical, and extrovert and dramatic.

Williams then delivered a masterful performance of the immense Hammerklavier. He demonstrated a clear sense of shape in each movement, and was expert in contrasting dynamics, tempo and mood in a way that created just the right amount of tension. He showed power in the more resolute passages and great articulation in the contrapuntal sections, notably in the final movement, although parts felt as though maybe the notes were running too much into each other. However, this did not detract from the overall impact of this most monumental of pieces. Williams' playing of the epic slow movement was quite breathtaking. The depth and control achieved in the extended lines of this expansive movement and the almost transcendental expression of calm and profound beauty were a joy to behold in Williams' deeply-considered performance. The hushed silence at the end of the movement was testament to this.

Llŷr Williams has been steadily building up his credentials as a Beethovenian and clearly tries to find fresh insights in each piece. This was a most rewarding recital, performed by someone who clearly has a deep emotional connection with the music, and I sense there is more to come. And as a parting gift, Williams announced his encores to this all-Beethoven recital with a smile and a single word to the audience: "Chopin"!