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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasia in D minor, K397 (1782) [7:29]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No 2 in G-sharp minor (pub.1898) [11:59]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Consolation No 1 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850) [1:34]
Consolation No 2 in E major, S.172 (pub.1850) [3:51]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in C minor, D 958 (1828) [28:09]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
A Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times (1649) [6:03]
Bill EVANS (1929-1980)
Peace Piece (1958) [7:12]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133 (1853) [13:10]
Cordelia Williams (piano)
rec. 11-12 December 2020, Turner Simms, Southampton
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview

I will start this review with a genuinely puzzled question: why isn’t Cordelia Williams better known? On the basis of this fabulous new recording she certainly deserves to be!

In an introductory note to this new collection from Cordelia Williams, she writes of being inspired to put its programme together by the sleepless nights she experienced following the births of her two sons. She talks of the joys and anxieties she experienced during these periods and widens the scope of her recital to “all those who feel alone in the darkness”. John France, reviewing this recording for these pages, was clearly less taken with the programme than I was, though he did admire her performances. I found both the theme and the performances entrancing and moving, though I do owe John my thanks for drawing this CD to my attention.

I listened to it immediately after reviewing Vikingur Olafsson’s superb new Mozart collection, which also includes the Mozart D minor Fantasia (albeit in a different form) that opens this recital. Inevitably, Williams’ touch at the piano suffers by comparison, though I would say that virtually every pianist would suffer from that comparison. Williams is intent on introducing us to the mood of the recording as a whole. This is music that murmurs in the night and the D major passage has seldom seemed so fragile. When, in the pianist’s own arrangement, the opening music returns at the end, it feels almost a ghostly presence and we know this particular night is far from over emotionally.

I didn’t initially see how this particular piece by Scriabin fitted into the night time theme. I was worried that Williams had resorted to some kind of cliché vision of the mad old Russian summoning up spirits in the dark. I was delighted to be proved utterly wrong. Both in the literal sense that the sonata’s opening movement was meant to portray the sea at night and in the sense that it does fit snugly into the overall mood of the album. It is a special sort of piano player who can be equally convincing in Scriabin, Schubert and Schumann but Williams is of that elevated order. This is wonderful stuff. Like Vincenzo Maltempo’s illuminating set of the complete sonatas, Williams grasps that the best way into Scriabin’s mystic visions is to play lyrically, as though playing Chopin. There is no grandstanding in this account, which allows the music to breathe its gentle and gently perturbed spirit. Rather than a Gothic evocation of the night, by the time we get to the end of the sonata we know that the night we are concerned with is a spiritual one. It seems appropriate, therefore, that we get Liszt at his most understated and confiding next. Williams draws out the prayerful nature of these miniatures beautifully.

A lot of music-making is about making decisions – which note to emphasise in a phrase, whether to pull back or push on with tempo or dynamics. Time after time, Williams’ decision-making in the Schubert had me purring with pleasure. Her decision-making also has one eye firmly focused on the long view of the movement and the piece as a whole. Her performance of the strange un-minuet-like minuet is a marvel. Even the great names amongst Schubertians seem a little perplexed by this fugitive music. Perhaps it is Williams’ night time theme that helps her unlock the way the uneven phrases interlock so convincingly as though an insomniac Schubert were facing his demons in the wee small hours. Whatever the prompt, Williams catches the mood peculiarly well both here and in the finale. In not straining to find high tragedy, she brings the music closer in character to the other two of Schubert’s last piano sonatas. There is the bitter-sweet tang. There are the fleeting moments of sensual delight and of joy mixed with deep sadness and nostalgic regret. It all passes under her attentive fingers. The first two movements are just as good; this is one of the great performances of this sonata and I hope it gets due consideration and doesn’t get lost in this collection. Williams has already shown her affinity for Schubert on her 2014 disc of the Impromptus, including a sublime account of D935 No. 3, but this is even finer. I certainly am panting for her to record the other late Schubert sonatas.

Two pieces take Williams from the Schubert to Schumann’s dawn and they make an intriguing pair. Thomas Tomkins’ fractious, uneasy meditation on the troubled times of the English Civil War and the jazz pianist Bill Evans’ improvisatory hymn to peace. Initially, I was disappointed by Williams’ lack of originality in borrowing the Evans from Igor Levit’s transcendent collection Life but she knew what she was about. As well as being the perfect transition to the Schumann, Williams’ way with the piece is much more playful than Levit’s. In the Russian’s collection, it stands for the gradual easing of the pain of grief into a form of acceptance reflected in the awkward grace of his performance. In this programme, it speaks of the easing of troubles of a disturbed night. Both performances, Williams and Levit, are food for the soul.

If her account of the Schubert achieves greatness, her account of that black sheep amongst Schumann’s piano music, Gesänge der Frühe, qualifies as a stunning revelation. Late Schumann takes the elusive, aphoristic aspects of the early music and turns them up several notches. This is very difficult music to pull off since it requires the performer to get inside the composer’s intimate world. There is virtually nothing virtuosic or showy about it. Williams seems to be communing with Schumann’s troubled spirit. This is music that could only have been written by someone who has only just made it through the dark night of the soul to the uneasy relief of the dawn. Williams finds astonishing beauty in these pieces that had me shaking my head in wonder. The dawn is, of course, the destination of the theme of the disc but I was moved by the way she evokes how we are changed by the experience of the night, whether literally through sleeplessness, or as a restive child, or metaphorically.

If one finds oneself passing through a dark night of problems of whatever kind, Williams has designed a programme to help the listener through such times and she is the ideal guide. If I have emphasised the programmatic elements of this recording then I need to balance that impression with the highest praise for Williams’ consummate artistry. This is not some vapid thematic collection designed solely to massage the performer’s ego. Every piece here is delivered with the utmost care and attention to musical matters first. This is what enables her to deliver such a thoroughly convincing collection, with the Schubert and Schumann touching real greatness.

I will end this review where I began by asking again – why is Cordelia Williams not better known?

David McDade

Previous review: John France

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