Imagine being a concert pianist and choosing your own programmes. All those possibilities; all that power! ‘I am the orchestra!’ declared Hector Berlioz, imagining himself inside the head of Franz Liszt. ‘I am the chorus and conductor as well. My piano sings, broods, flashes, thunders.’ The heart lifts when a pianist thinks a little differently about their recital programmes and tries to make connections and tell stories beyond the familiar tramlines of Bach, Beethoven and late Schubert. Don’t get me wrong; the Austro-German big boys are a healthy part of a balanced musical diet. It’s just that – well, you know. There is a world elsewhere.
Llyr Williams played Bartok, Chopin, Albeniz and Peter Warlock, and he made them sound as if no combination could possibly be more natural. If there was a unifying theme, it was the influence of folk music, but Williams didn’t labour the point and certain elements of the programme seemed to have been chosen as much to emphasise differences as similarities. Bartok kicked things off: the six Romanian Folk Dances, tiny melodies noted down in Transylvania shortly before the first world war and then chiselled, shaped and polished, much as a jeweller cuts and refines a raw gemstone.
Bartok closed the first half too; the Piano Sonata of 1926, a work generally assumed (like much of Bartok’s middle-period music) to be heavily folk-inspired. It’s a very different beast though, with its controlled motor rhythms, low-lying melodies and lightning flashes, all set against a brooding cloudscape of close-worked harmonies. And finishing the concert, in pointed contrast, came Liszt’s twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody, as unfashionable a piece of virtuoso swagger as you’re likely to hear in these calorie-counting days. This is what 19th-century audiences thought Hungarian folk music sounded like; we’ve all gone organic since then.
Still, it was good to hear it – to spot the defiantly uncool antecedents of Bartok’s modernism (those thunderous tremolandi), to inhale a deep, satisfying lungful of Liszt’s languorous melancholy, and generally to remind ourselves why Berlioz found this all so intoxicating.