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A Schubert Journey (Llŷr Williams)

Llŷr Williams (piano) (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Collected Piano Works
Llŷr Williams (piano)
Signum Classics SIGCD 645   574:18 mins (8 discs)

As Llŷr Williams points out in his preface to the disc’s booklet, any pianist embarking on a survey of Schubert’s sonatas needs to decide which of the early works to include. Schubert made his first sustained attempts with the genre in 1817, when he was just 20. Of the works he composed at that time, Williams includes only the Sonata D575, in the unusual key of B major. Several of the companion pieces were left incomplete, but still it’s a pity to be without the E flat Sonata D568, which is a later revision of a work originally written in the key of D flat; or the E minor D566, with its beautiful rondo in the major clearly modelled on the rondo from Beethoven’s two-movement sonata in the same key Op. 90.

On the other hand, Williams does include the largest and greatest of Schubert’s unfinished sonatas, D840, composed in the spring of 1825. Only its first two movements stand complete, and most pianists choose to play just those. However, there have been attempts at rounding out the remainder, by Ernst Křenek and Paul Badura-Skoda among others. Williams opts for a completion by the American composer William Bolcom; and while it’s good to hear the minuet, which Schubert nearly finished, the finale is much weaker than the rest, and he was surely right to abandon it.

Slightly extraneous to Williams’s cycle is the last of the eight discs, featuring a generous selection of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs. If something of an acquired taste, there’s no denying their ingenuity. Williams dispatches the dazzling display pieces such as Erlkönig, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, and Die Forelle (The Trout) brilliantly.

Among the sonatas, perhaps he’s most at home in the D major D850, where he conveys the sweep of the unusually quick and energetic opening movement admirably. He’s very good in that early B major sonata and the late A major D959, too, but there are occasions elsewhere – and particularly in the slow movements, almost all of them marked ‘Andante’ – where he sounds rather ponderous. While there’s no mistaking his innate musicality, pieces like the Andante of the unfinished C major Sonata, or the big A minor D845 and the genial little A major D664 all need to flow more naturally. A mixed bag, then, but at their best these are very impressive performances.

Misha Donat