How to programme Beethoven piano cycles

Pianist Llŷr Williams explains the various ways he has chosen to programme Beethoven cycles over the years

How to programme Beethoven piano cycles

My experience playing Beethoven sonatas began when I was 10 and had to play Op. 14 No. 2 for an Associated Board Grade 8 exam. This sonata remains one of my favourites and would be much better known if it had the nickname of the 'surprise' sonata. The fortissimo final chord after the pianissimo fade-out in the second movement never fails to make an impact on an audience and is much more startling than the effect in Haydn's 'Surprise' symphony.

It was in 2010, having grown a little tired of mixed recital programmes, that I gave my first complete sonata cycle in the wonderful hall in Perth. For this I adopted a largely chronological approach. There are problems with this approach however, one being the fact that two of the most difficult sonatas, Op. 101 and 106, have to be played back-to-back. These are challenging technically and conceptually with extreme emotional contrast and both pieces ending with fugues. The Op. 101 fugue has to sound fun, rather than just seeming challenging. Fugues can sometimes be fun, and this is something musicians are not always taught!

When I came to my next cycle, a marathon project at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival when I played all 32 in just over two weeks, I adopted a 'mix-and-match' method of programming.

For the cycle I recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, which now has appeared in the box set Beethoven Unbound, I covered an even wider span of Beethoven's works, including sets of variations and other miscellaneous pieces. This enabled me to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar, a drawback of chronological programming. In the second concert, I started with the rarely-heard Fantasy Op. 77 and finished with the Moonlight sonata. The Fantasy is a completely bonkers piece, beginning with an array of disparate ideas following on from one another in bewildering succession until Beethoven finally alights on a theme in B major which he goes on to develop, a sounding-out of the compositional process itself perhaps. The name of the 'Moonlight' sonata Op. 27 No. 2 is a distraction from the many original aspects of the piece, starting a sonata with a monotonous slow movement with hardly any contrast, a piece that has at least more in common with Bach than with the romantics that were influenced by it.

When undertaking the project of programming Beethoven’s works, you are guaranteed to find dramatic contrasts between the pieces. He never repeated himself compositionally, including such a wide variety of emotion. Some of his piano works feature humour, and some are compositions of emotions he was unable to express in words.

Llŷr Williams’ box set Beethoven Unbound is available now on Signum Classics.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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