There is something quite unique about a piano recital. A single performer, often a massive feat of memory, interpretation and technique, and at the heart of it a concert grand piano, an instrument which, since the mid-17th century, has been subjected to constant refinement and development for the changing nature of public performance spaces and musical styles. In the mid-19th century, Steinway patented the process for casting one piece solid cast iron frames for concert grands, and in so doing, changed the nature of the power and impressiveness of the instrument and gave us what we now associate with the modern-day grand piano.
A Steinway Model D full concert grand is some nine feet in length and is an instrument of extraordinary refinement and complexity in its manufacture. Shrewsbury has had a fine instrument for some 30 or more years, but in recent years it has started to show its age and is now in need of some refurbishment, although still a potentially very fine instrument for years to come. So it was fortuitous when one of our long-serving Governors, Sir Algie Heber Percy, who retired from the Governing Body at the end of last year, suggested that, with a bit of generous help from himself, the School might like to think about acquiring another more modern Model D.
Together with support from the School, we have been able to purchase a truly wonderful second Steinway Model D Grand, which means now that the School has in total five Steinway Grands of various sizes and ages, but all wonderful pianos for our students and visiting performers to benefit from playing.
And so, on St David’s Day, our new Steinway received its inaugural recital from one of the UK’s leading pianists, Llyr Williams, who has established himself as one of the most exciting pianists of his generation and whose playing career has taken him to the Carnegie Hall and all over the world, both as a solo performer and with our top orchestras.
We have a well-established tradition of welcoming distinguished piano recitalists to the Alington Hall. Freddie Kempf, Nicolai Demidenko, Stephen Hough, John Lill, Peter Donohoe, Pascal Roge, Joanna MacGregor, to name but a few, have all played to large enthusiastic audiences beneath the portraits of generations of Salopian Headmasters, holding their audiences in rapt attention. And these have all been made possible by the spirited generosity over the last 12 years or so of one Salopian family, Mike and Fleur Bradley, whose son James was in Moser’s Hall in the early 1990s, and who himself was a fine musician and scholar. They were joined on this occasion as sponsors by Gareth Jenkins, a great supporter of music at Shrewsbury and further afield, and himself guardian to Galin Ganchev, Shrewsbury’s rising pianistic star pupil.
The recitals are now presented almost in the round, in order to give as intimate and salon a feel as we can to each performance. Llyr had chosen a wonderfully varied programme of music from Mozart to Szymanowski, and he demonstrated from start to finish why he is held in such high regard by critics and audiences alike.
Llyr’s brand of pianism is never brash or flamboyant, his subtle use of the piano’s tonal registers always carefully considered and the architecture of the music always revealed in its entirety. His Mozart C Minor Fantasia was a beautifully executed, with Llyr revealing every subtlety of this, one of Mozart’s finest solo piano works.
There was much else to enjoy in Llyr’s programme. Beethoven’s two-movement Piano Sonata No. 27 is a lyrical work, particularly in the second movement Rondo, whose gentle flowing theme Llyr judged perfectly in tempo and feel. Schubert’s immense Wanderer Fantasie, multi -faceted and technically demanding in so many ways, was for me the highlight of the programme and brought huge applause from a packed Alington Hall to bring the first half of his recital to a close.
The second half of Llyr’s recital consisted of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, a series of eight evocative piano pieces, each with a title, miniature studies in programme and mood. Llyr captured exquisitely Schumann’s intense romanticism, lyrical beauty and impetuous muscularity. These are relative miniatures in comparison to the Wanderer Fantasie, but no less perfect for that. And so on to some wonderful Mazurkas by Szymanowski, before finishing with Chopin’s epic Polonaise Fantasie, Opus 61, a work which twists and turns through an enormously long slow introduction before finding the customary brilliance of pianistic writing one associates with this composer.
The whole programme was marked by flawless playing from Llyr, whose only reservation as he finished was that it had been a little long for his audience. Thus for an encore he treated them to Bartok’s Romanian Dance – short, pithy, but just enough to savour after the most sumptuous of pianistic feasts.
The final question remains. What did Llyr Williams make of the new Steinway? I asked him that very question at the end of the evening, and after considering his response he replied, “Well, it actually could do everything I wanted from a piano, which is very unusual!” High praise indeed for our new Steinway, and hopefully this remarkable performer will be back to perform on it again many times more in the future.