Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
Ll?r Williams's Beethoven is a challenge. Currently just over halfway through his complete run of the piano sonatas at Greyfriars ? divvied up non-chronologically into 12 concerts over the span of the Edinburgh fringe ? his playing is always technically commanding, but marked with a troubling musical perversity. Why do we attach certain adjectives to certain pieces of music? Usually, the opening of Opus 101 is beguiling, the second movement of Opus 109 is stormy ? descriptions that have entered the canon of tradition almost as immovably as the music itself.
But Williams confounds almost every prescribed characteristic. In his hands, the arioso second movement of Opus 31 No 1 was restless, its pretty ornaments aggressive and sardonic, its simple accompaniment turned into barbed staccato jabs. The third movement of the same sonata, marked "allegretto", was heavily turgid until a sudden angry scramble in the closing bars. Or take Opus 14 No 1, whose breezy (and relatively easy ? it was written for an amateur pianist) nature Williams bulldozed with chugging left-hand chords in the first movement, and another "allegretto" second movement with all the litheness of a funeral march. Opus 101 was stern and percussive in the opening movement, ponderous throughout the rest.
It was hard to find logic behind these interpretations. I found almost every musical decision counterintuitive ? even down to the length of time Williams left between movements. His sound is generally very bright, harsh at times, but he softens into occasional passages of utter tenderness. All of this he delivers unapologetically; his conviction is, or at least seems to be, absolute. The dramatically exaggerated gestures of Glenn Gould come to mind. Like Gould, Williams forces us to sit up and listen, even if we don't always like what we hear.