First published in The Sunday Herald on 15 June, 2014
When he was still fairly early in his career, the Welsh pianist Llyr Williams made a conscious decision to learn as much music as he could before he turned 40 and then spend the rest of his life revisiting that repertoire. Now 36, he technically has four more years to add new works to the list — but as it turns out he’s ahead of schedule. “I’ve come to the end of the major pieces I want to learn,” he tells me with a hint of a sheepish smile. “I’ve got a range of repertoire upstairs that’s quite large by now. I’ve a done all the major Liszt, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms, Debussy, a lot of Bartok, the Second Viennese School, Janacek, Rachmaninov…”
And of course Beethoven. As a BBC New Generation Artist, as a Borletti-Buitoni Trust winner, as a regular recitalist at the finest concert halls around the world, it has been Beethoven above all who has formed the core of Williams’s reputation. Beethoven suits his propensity for stateliness, steeliness and searching insight, for showmanship and flair mixed with immensely personal expression, for fastidious attention to the score alongside dramatically individual interpretations.
The first time he performed a complete set of Beethoven piano sonatas was at Perth Concert Hall in 2010; that series prompted The Herald’s Michael Tumelty to describe him as “one of the greatest of the modern day”. Since then Williams has been through several more rounds of Beethoven’s 32, and this autumn he begins the cycle afresh at the Wigmore Hall in a series that runs until 2016 ““ a luxurious two years compared with the three-week marathon cycle he performed in Edinburgh in 2011.
To keep his playing fresh, Williams gives himself the challenge of finding a minimum of six new things in each movement every time he returns to a work. He might try emphasising a certain inner voice or taking more time here or less time there. When I ask why he doesn’t craft an interpretation and stick with it, he replies frankly: “because I’ve no idea what Beethoven had in mind so it’s no good pretending that I can phone him up and ask him. Also because that would get stale. There’s not much point in coming back to something if you’re not going to find something new in it.”
Talking with Williams is disarming and fascinating. Anybody who has seen him perform will know his mannerisms: the way he walks on stage bolt-upright and gazes at the audience with a slow, unnerving half grin before settling at the keyboard. In person he is exactly the same. When he speaks there’s no filter, none of the usual interviewee attempts to sound clever or profound or funny, yet he’s extraordinarily careful to choose his words correctly. He takes long pauses before responding to questions and makes no effort to fill the silences.
We meet in Chester because it’s a convenient hub between the West Coast train lines and the local branch that connects to Williams’s home near Wrexham, North Wales. At a mock-Tudor pub next to the Shropshire Union Canal, he studies the lunch menu and orders a salad; when it arrives he prepares each bite with that same absolute precision that seems to permeate his every action. I regret ordering a messy burger.
In his heavy north-Wales accent (he grew up a Welsh speaker) Williams tells me about the village outside of Wrexham where he was born, brought up and still lives. It used to be a coal mining community and has a history of artists — his own father is a poet — but now most of the shops have shut down on the High Street and it’s become commuter belt for Wrexham and Chester.
Williams was an only child and was home-schooled before joining the local primary school. “I knew I was very different from the other kids in the class,” he says. “I always felt like a bit of an outsider.” He started playing piano at the age of seven and progressed dramatically fast. By nine he was accompanying the school choir and local Eisteddfod (“Mr Richard Jones had me playing for the whole competition, all day long from 9am until 3.30pm”); by 11 he was sitting his Grade 8 exam. After that his piano teacher in Wrexham couldn’t offer him much guidance, so he took it upon himself to feed his immense appetite for new music. He would borrow scores from the local library and take the train into Manchester to buy stacks of music to play through at home. “I was the only person in Wrexham who was able to play the piano to a certain ability so I was doing lots of concerts,” he says. “Accompanying male voice choirs, that sort of thing. I’m sure it was good for my musical development.”
He laughs when I ask whether he ever sang in a male voice choir himself. “I’ve got a fine voice,” he says, “but not a voice that would blend in the choir.” After a long pause he explains: “Sometimes I wish I was a singer. It’s very rare to find a pianist who wishes that they were anything else other than a pianist, but a Verdi baritone is what I’d really like to be.”
As a teenager he went to Opera North productions in Manchester and always loved Verdi’s operas the best. When he arrived as an undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be: he studied conducting with George Hurst and worked in the voice department as an accompanist. “On one occasion the baritone hadn’t learned his part and pretended he had a cold,” he recalls, “so the only thing I could do was to sing the part from the pit. The bass was singing on stage and the baritone was miming.” The opera was Verdi’s Don Carlos ““ a huge scene for King Philip and Rodrigo. “That was quite fun…” Williams smiles at the memory. “I got the best standing ovation of the whole evening.”
Does his love of opera have an impact on the way he plays the piano? “I hope it does,” he says. “Just the other day I was telling students in a masterclass to think like a singer and imagine words being put to certain phrases. I often sing through my piano lines.” His fondness for Wagner has resulted in his latest recording, due for release on Signum in August: a double album of the composer’s music including Liszt transcriptions, solo piano music and an obscure 1970s Glen Gould transcription of the overture to Die Meistersingers von Nurnburg.
In recent years Williams has performed in Scotland more regularly than in any other country bar Wales. He is artist-in-resident at Glasgow Concert Halls (he plays three all-Beethoven recitals at City Halls in September) and is soloist in Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ““ the First and Second this coming season, the Third and Fourth next. He has also become a fixture of the East Neuk Festival, and it seems only fitting that he is back in Fife this July for the festival’s tenth anniversary. When I ask what he enjoys about playing there, Williams thinks for a long while, then replies simply: “the audience is very attentive and warm and welcoming”. With some artists this answer might feel like a dodge; with Williams, you can be sure it is absolutely genuine.
Llyr Williams plays Schubert at the East Neuk Festival on July 5