Introducing pianist Llŷr Williams to the audience, Music in the Round’s Tom McKinney described him not just as an exceptional former BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist and stalwart accompanist at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, but also as a “Welsh national hero” – and by the end of this astonishing recital it was clear that his heroic status was entirely justified. Williams wasted no energy on superfluous talk or action: a stately procession on and off stage, and a smiling survey of the audience at the end of each piece, were all that distracted him, perched on the very edge of his piano stool, from an intense focus on the music. 

Llŷr Williams
© Hannan Images

And what exceptional pianism! In Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, the composer's final solo piano work, Williams found a rich vein of feeling embedded in Rachmaninov’s characteristic virtuosity. Rachmaninov transformed the La Folia theme and chord progression (as employed by Corelli in his Violin Sonata, Op.5 No.12), with its roots in Mediterranean passion, into a piece echoing with the dark sonorities of Russian Orthodox Church music. Williams unfolded the 20 variations and coda that follow the initial presentation of the theme almost as a single relentless arch, broken only by the brief shift from D minor, Rachmaninov’s favourite key, to D flat major for the Intermezzo and Variation 14, in which Williams lingered tenderly over the emotional core of the work.

The change from these brooding variations to the rather brashly sparkling sound world of Liszt’s Légende no.1 “St. François d'Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux” was initially quite startling, but the ear soon attuned itself to the music’s rather literal scene painting of chirruping birds gradually stilled by the serene ministrations of St Francis’ preaching. Williams’ programming invited the audience to consider the familiar two faces of Liszt’s character and reputation – the divine and the diabolic – by juxtaposing this vision of spiritual inspiration with the final work on his programme, the popular Mephisto Waltz no. 1. Williams approached this piece at a fearsome pace, and if one had seen sparks fly it would have been no surprise, given the jaw-dropping nature of the performance, in which Faust’s wild dance of seduction to the accompaniment of Mephistopheles’ violin playing has never, in my experience, seemed so all-consuming. That many of the usually reserved Sheffield audience members found themselves on their feet was no surprise. The playing compelled it. There were no encores; one felt that for the piano, at least, that might have come as a relief!

The first half of Llŷr Williams’ programme, especially in contrast with what followed, gave the impression of being ever so slightly played with the handbrake on. He opened with Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor K475, which is, said Alfred Einstein, a display of the composer’s “mighty powers of improvisation”. It’s a work that employs extremes of emotional range and dynamic contrast, in a structure which is inherently episodic. Though Williams pointed up the evident ways in which it prefigures the keyboard techniques of Beethoven, the end result seemed like a sequence of static scenes rather than a cumulative journey. Beethoven’s shadow fell over the other work in the first half of Williams’ programme too, Schumann’s monumental Fantasie in C major Op.17, originally conceived as a fund-raiser for a monument to Beethoven in Bonn. Williams seemed most at ease with the obsessive dotted rhythms of the second movement march, though the tender finale, a love letter to Clara, cast a radiant spell over his listeners at the work’s conclusion.